Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sulfer Peak [SVS], 11/28/12

Alright, now here's a peak that I hadn't done. I'd looked at it a million or so times but hadn't gotten around to ticking it off the list. Sulfer Peak sits squarely above Tar Creek and is accessed via the old Tar Creek Trail which continues down to the Sespe. This was a really cool peak. A great climb culminating in one of the best "view summits" in our neighborhood. This is an adventurous climb, not too big on mileage, but mean enough to make up for that. This peak is, in hiker parlance, a "Seldom Visited Site", or in this case "Seldom Visited Summit" (SVS). The most recent signature in the summit register was dated 05/2009.
The weather forcast had improved a bit and the latest rainy system wasn't scheduled to hit SoCal until the afternoon. I figured I could get in and out before the rain hit. I got an uncharacteristically late start, began walking from the Tar Creek TH at 0645. I jogged down to the creek and continued across to pick up the trail on the other side. This portion of the route climbs out of the creek and heads roughly north before heading west across the foot of Sulfer Peak. This trail is in pretty good shape, though some portions are a bit brushy and there are a few washed out parts. If you find this part of the day to be brushy and unpleasant then maybe Sulfer Peak isn't your cup of tea.

Left to Right: Bear Haven, sun on Topatopa Peak and Devil's Heart, and Sulfer Peak on the far right.

Bear Haven and the West Fork Sespe.

I banged out a quick couple miles under Sulfer and I was soon beneath the largest and longest ridge descending from the summit. I jumped off the trail and started heading up. Here's where the day gets interesting. There is no trail up this peak. I can say this with authority. On my ascent I found several trail ducks but these didn't correlate to anything I'd call trail, historic or otherwise, so how about a nice big serving of brush, rocks, and charred manzanita? The ridge climbs for roughly 2 miles, gaining around 2,200ft of elevation. It's not a nice climb, but it is entertaining. 

I hung a right and started uphill shortly after passing this culvert and that rock.

Looking back down the "Brush Buffet" toward Tar Creek.

Ridge to the summit, which is visible way in the distance.

The first mile or so ascending from the old Tar Creek Trail is 100% brush busting. No bueno. Fortunately I have experienced the absolute worst the the SLP can dish up so I wasn't unduly impressed by the brush. It's brush. It's in my way. Figure it out. As I climbed this ridge it became rockier in areas and I was able to connect a series of rock slabs together. Ascending these slabs is easy and direct, sure there's stands of brush to bust through but on the whole I'd say that the middle third is the easiest portion of the summit run (if you can get onto the rocks). These slabs are on the eastern side of the main ridge to the summit and are clearly visible on Google Earth imagry.  

Find the rock slabs through the middle of the summit slog. It'll help considerably.

Easy street. Find the slabs.
Eventually the rocky slabs of purple sandstone terminate and it's back to brush munching. The last several hundred yards to the summit are pretty tough, very brushy and extra unpleasant. In fact, I'd say the whole thing, starting from the trail below, is pretty burly. Those of you who have a good sense of what I define as "burly" will understand. Nothing for free. It was a good fight.


I achieved the summit in 2hours:58minutes from the truck. This is an open and rocky summit, perfect for taking in grand views of Topa, Hines, Cobblestone and Whiteacre peaks. I was a bit surprised to find a small cairn at the high point. Inside the cairn was a summit register with a handfull of scribblings dating to 2004. Like I said, not many folks have come this way. I really enjoyed this summit, the whole day really. Tough Peak. Good stuff. After a 40minute summit sojourn it was time to turn it around, especially if I didn't want to get rained on. 
The summit cairn with Whiteacre Peak immediately behind it.

Topatopa Peak from the west, if you enlarge the picture you can see a hint of the old fire tower on the summit.

I started down, reversing the path that took me here. My recomendation for those who might want to do this peak is to bring a GPS and keep the track open all the way up and down. Getting off route on the descent can put you on the wrong arm of the mountain or even worse, in a drainage. Use care on the descent and it will save you from ending up in a true briar patch. If all else fails, below is a white sandstone slab that drains into Tar Creek. This feature is visible from almost anywhere with a view on the south side of Sulfer Peak. Before getting there the trail back to Tar will be visible. It's all about how much abuse you incur in the process of getting down, a little or a lot.

When descending, aim for this prominent drainage which flows into Tar. The route back to Tar Creek can be seen on the left.

This peak is a great hike, probably not everybody's idea of fun but I certainly thought so. If you're looking for an amazing perspective of the Sespe backcountry I have to say that this summit should scratch that itch. I had a really good time up there. And I felt the first sprinkles and eventual rain as I crossed Tar Creek and headed back up to the truck. I got real dirty, ate some brush, garnered a new collection of scratches, and had a stellar day.

Sulfer Peak boasts some of the most dramatic views of our local backcountry.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mammoth for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving weekend. America's expression of "thankfulness", for an extended weekend of sanctioned gluttony spent either on the couch watching football, or at America's arenas of bloodsport consumerism (Walmart and ilk). As for the football, it seems that Romo should just get paid by the opposing team, and Go Irish! the 18 year knight is over. As for Black Friday (now Thursday it seems), I will only ask a question of my own...What would an alien race think of America and Americans if they only stayed with us through the Thanksgiving Day weekend? The coup d'grace would be if the ETs thought they'd give us a second chance but returned to America on Super Bowl Sunday. We, as a nation, would be immediately vaporized, the charges read would include the galatic equivalent of "extremely bad taste".

Having no obligations (familial, traditional, occupational or otherwise) on this four day weekend gave us a chance to maybe start a little tradition of our own. If that turns out to be the case and this getaway to Mammoth was actually the "first annual", then we set the bar high on the fun meter. A few hours after we checked in at the Village we headed back down the road to The Restaurant at Convict Lake. Charmingly rustic, with fantastic food and outstanding service, this is one of our favorite places to eat anywhere. Dinner did not disappoint. Afterward we drove to the lake and enjoyed the moonlight on the snowy peaks ringing Convict. It was a very nice Thanksgiving.

Friday and Saturday we boarded. We had good early season conditions, brilliantly sunny skies with temps in the high 40's. Things got a little icy off the groomers, especially in the AM. We boarded all day both days, and like I said earlier, the crowds weren't as bad as I had anticipated. Besides, Mammoth is a huge place and it was fairly easy to find less populated areas. Ruth was boarding really well. She is a black diamond boarder for real, and she chased me down the East Bowl gully without blinking. It was just an all around awesome weekend.

To watch the above video in HD, Click this link. 

And that's a wrap for this lovely weekend in Mammoth. I'll be back in the SLP this week, though the forcast for my day off is reminiscent of my last outing to Samon Peak, low clouds and rain. Let's see if I can find the summit of my intended target on this one. Got me a little adventure lined up for Wednesday. Hope you all had a nice holiday.
Left to right: The Minaretes, Mt Ritter (did in '05), and Mt Banner.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Samon Peak... I think? I'll explain. 11/16/12

Evening in Cuyama Valley

Okay, well here's a weird one. I thought I had summited Samon Peak while out and about last Friday. The GPS said I did, and I believe it, but by that time I was so deep in a cloud that I couldn't find the summit marker or the register. And that's the sucky truth. I'm not at all confused about where I was, just that I didn't, as they say, get the t-shirt. Aside from that I had a very nice 25 mile day in the rain.

Madulce Ridge with the summit lost in the clouds.

A sunrise laser beam aimed at Madulce Peak

When I took to the hills on Thursday evening I was well aware that the forecast was not favorable for the type of day that I had planned on. I decided instead to take a crack at Samon Peak. To that end I pre-positioned myself up Santa Barbara Canyon for an early morning start. I parked at Willow Flat instead of at the eastern gate for Buckhorn Rd. Willow Flat is a lot like Grassy Flat on the Sespe in one respect...the names are no longer relevant. See, Grassy Flat is neither grassy nor flat, and Willow Flat has only a nappy old juniper tree. I guess things change. Anyway, I parked it here instead of another half mile up the road in case I decided to link Samon with Madulce and come out through SB Canyon. It didn't work out that way but whatever, I had a great day.

Here's the "meadow" that's mentioned in route directions for Samon Peak.
I crawled into the bed of the truck and knocked out early under cloudy skies. When I woke at 0300 the first thing I noticed after killing the alarm clock was the rain. Oh good. Crawling out of a warm bag and into shell gear at 3AM isn't anything new for me, but I'd rather it was snowing. I have a feline nature and part of that is an antipathy for being cold and wet. I don't enjoy those two things when combined. And especially without coffee. Already 2 strikes on the day. No coffee to be had so it was Go Go Gadget Gore-Tex! time. I got myself put together pretty quickly and was out the gate at 0330. In the rain.

It was a black morning. And did I mention it was raining? After a mile of chasing the beam from the headlamp I was pretty warmed up and feeling about right. I hit the gas and started trucking up Buckhorn Rd. This road is one of those routes that I prefer doing in the dark. The road is smooth and foot friendly with very few rocks, which makes for easy walking. Also, it's just better to not be able to see how steep the first five miles are and how far away the various loops in the road are. I have heard that this long and tedious grade can be bad for morale. I know this route pretty well and I let the miles fall by while listening to the rain fall on my hood. It was a peaceful walk, quiet. I enjoyed the climb for what it was.

Anybody know anything about an old telegraph? wire strung on the high south shoulder of Samon Peak?
At the top of the grade I headed south, following Buckhorn Rd. The sky began to lighten in the east but overhead was a solid ceiling of ominous clouds coming in from the west. Now that I was up above the canyons I was greeted by a persistent northerly breeze that came on at 10-15mph and never seemed to go away. The wind and the rain seemed to get along like old friends, lucky me. At sunrise the first rays of light cut a straight line under the cloud ceiling which was a neat, if too brief show. Soon enough the sun was behind the clouds and my day returned to dripping grey. As I neared Chokecherry Spring I started keeping an eye out for the use trail which leads to the summit of Samon. That junction is currently marked by twin yellow hazard tapes, 1-2/10's of a mile north of the spring.

I couldn't make out much from the start of the summit trail. The clouds ceiling was now less that a hundred feet above my head. Wind, rain, and pretty soon I'd be up in that cloud. How damn exciting is that? Up I went. The lowest portion of the summit trail ascends the northern side of the ravine that drains to Chokecherry Spring. After a brief, steep and brushy climb I traversed WNW across the small meadow that's mentioned in all the guides, and continued climbing the route up the NW side of the ridge. So far so good. I was soon in the clouds, drenched on the outside, breathing water, huffing up this steep and muddy track. I finally popped out on a high saddle with one arm of the ridge heading south and the summit ridge a short ways up and right. I waded through the cloud until I ran out of places to go up, and this might have been a little comical to an outside observer. I wandered all over the top of that thing, looking everywhere for the marker, but the cloud was so thick that I couldn't see more than a foot or two. As I mentioned above, the GPS said I was there. What I remember of the summit (and I fully expect to be told by some of you that I may or may not have actually been there) is a rocky pile of broken brown rock, about 8 feet on a side. West of that pile, and down hill about 15 feet is a second, smaller pile of the same rock. If this ain't the top of Samon Peak then I need a new GPS.

Samon Peak. I was somewhere up in that mess.
Buckhorn Road.
Buckhorn Road.
Buckhorn Road.
After wandering around in the cloud a bit I headed over to the south pointing shoulder I mentioned before. I followed a bear track out that way for a while, and was surprised to find the old wire and glass insulators strung along the ridgeline's length. As for the summit, I'm completely comfortable with the idea that I have to go back in better conditions. I liked the peak but I just couldn't find the marker in all that cloud.

I abandoned the peak and descended back to Buckhorn, hit the gas and got outa there. From below the clouds I could see patches of sunlight to the north. That's where I wanted to be...out of the rain dammit. I just rolled on out to the long grade back into SB Canyon and the end of the day. I had a great time out there despite the weather. Some days are just wet and windy and you can't do anything about it except stay home. I guess I'm not that guy.

I figured my exertions at around 25 miles for the day, which took me 10 hours to accomplish. I'll be back to sign that summit, next time I'll wait for a clear day.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

At large in the SLP, 11/09/12

Last week I ran up a canyon that I will leave unnamed. This was a little reconnaissance for some thing bigger. I wanted to see "things" from several different angles. While I was out and about I startled a few deer, spooked a harris hawk out of the brush, and oh yeah, found this little gift from the big birds above. This feather measured just over 18 inches. Big. And that's about all I have that I'm gonna share about that day. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Madulce Peak via Santa Barbara Canyon, 11/05/12

Here's the trip stats for doing Madulce Peak as a day-hike via Santa Barbara Canyon (I'll get to the rest of it in a minute):
Started from Willow Flat: 04:15, ended at 15:15. 
Time to summit: 5:40
Total time: 11:00
Elevation Gain: > 4,000 ft of unmaintained trail
Total Distance: 22.5 miles

Waking up at 2AM isn't any fun at all, but I had to do it. I needed an early jump on a long trail day, and it takes two hours to get to Santa Barbara Canyon from Ventura. Coffee in one hand and the other on the wheel I roll up Highway 33. I was bleary eyed and sleepy until I almost pasted a 3-point buck at Wheeler. It was close. Not so sleepy after that.

When I stepped out of the truck I was immediately taken with the crystalline skies. Dark black, pierced by glittering stars and hung with a half moon. A beautiful morning for miles. 

A look back down Santa Barbara Canyon.
Santa Barbara Canyon is not a new trail for me. I went through there recently and remarked at that time that the trail was brushy and can be tricky in a couple spots, but the route to Madulce Station was pretty easy to follow. Nothing has changed in that regard. Travelling up this canyon is best done quickly. Most of the route is close and overgrown, denying the hiker any real views. It's not all that pretty anyway. The canyon is full of wild rose, sage, manzanita and miscellaneous chaparral. There are a handfull of nice places to pull out along the way, mostly through the forested portions. This canyon is dry as a bone at this time. For older trip report (Santa Barbara Cnyn/Upper Sisquoc/Judell Cnyn).

Eventually the canyon terminates in a short but steep climb which has been labeled "heart break hill" by Conant on his map of the region. This climb does have one interesting feature in that the hiker ascends what is basically a knee-deep gully for a time. Beware of "sucker trails", paths that have been created by animals and immortalized by people taking said path in error, or in hope of an easier way up this grade. Several of these sucker trails deviate from the real route. Just assume when going up this hill that you should just keep going up until there isn't any more up. 

Taken about 5 minutes out from Madulce Station.
I rolled into Madulce Station at 7AM, just in time for breakfast! I sat in the sun for a few minutes nibbling on mandarins, just enjoying myself. The best campsite here is actually a couple hundred yards further up the trail toward the peak. I would have taken my break there but that site doesn't get any morning sun. There is no water in the creek at Madulce right now. The old spring box against the hill has been demolished and seems to have become a bear wallow. I got going again after a half hour.

The sign at Madulce Station, which points you...

...directly into this. And the best part is, the sign is right.

As you can see from the pictures above, the road up Madulce from the Station is the road less travelled. The first mile up from the Station is pretty brushy, and some people have reported route finding issues. Eventually the trail climbs west out of the Madulce drainage, taking the north side of the creek. This portion of the route cuts through fire damaged area and deadfall trees criss-cross much of the trail. Another mile of climbing through charred cedars leads to a shady junction marked by a good old-fashioned fireproof sign which seldom points in the right direction. Here's where I was was finally going to get a taste of the unknown, the last two miles over to the summit.

The trail forks high on Madulce, east (left) to the peak, and west (right) to Alamar Saddle.

"Over" to the summit might seem confusing but that's the way of it. This final leg to the summit traverses back east across the north side of Madulce, gradually losing 300-400 feet of hard earned elevation for the first mile. The final 8/10ths of a mile are pretty tough, earning all that lost footage back plus more. Route finding on this last leg to the summit can be an issue. The route is fairly well marked with trail ducks and survey tape but the actual trail is a mess. The trail is seldom more than a foot wide path of slightly tamped pine needles. There are several washed out sections and many deadfalls to contend with. I mentioned sucker trails before, they are quite prevalent on this last step to the top. This route has a number of switchbacks that are just as vague and indistinct as the rest of the trail. Animals and hikers have zigged right past the zag and ended up heading some direction that doesn't necessarily get you where you want to go. It pays to be awake and aware during this part. Also, I found that staying on route while descending was a bit more difficult than on the up, for some reason. Anyway, staying on route requires some diligence.

A view northeast toward Cuyama Peak.

I summited 5h:40min after starting from Willow Flat, and what a view. And what a great peak. This summit is way worth doing. It's out in the sticks, and on a day like I had the views are pretty wild. Views of all the Channel Islands, Pine Mountain Ridge, Don Victor Valley, Alamar and Samon Peak. Views down into the Dick Smith and San Rafael. This peak used to have a fire lookout on top and all that remains are the base pillars and a couple slabs of concrete. I spent an hour on top, enjoying the morning and brunch with a view.

Madulce Summit.

A view west toward Santa Barbara.
ENE to Cuyama Peak.
ESE toward Reyes.
Madulce Peak Summit Register.
Looking west to Alamar Saddle and Samon Peak.

Thank you Zaca Fire.
Break time in the shade at the high junction.

Eventually it was time to get on my way down. As I mentioned, descending back to the high junction on the north side of Madulce can be tricky. I got that all straightened out, took a break at the sign and got back on my way. I pretty much blew out the rest of the way to the truck in one big sprint. Below are a collection of shots I took on the return route that should shed some light on the nature of this trail.

Somewhere in the day I encountered the skeletonized remains of a small bear. All that was left of the poor critter was a scattering of bones and brown hair. The scavengers had done their job well. It was impossible to speculate on the cause of death.

Bear remains.

This hike was a really nice day, and the peak was a fun and engaging climb. I'm glad that after walking by the turnoff for the peak four times previously I was finally able to dedicate some time to just doing the peak. It turned out to be a great day.

Below: this one's for you, Chris ( he comments on this blog fairly frequently). How'd you like the Upper Sisquoc?