Thursday, March 14, 2013

Descending Nordoff Peak The Hard Way. Don't do this.

I'd just hiked up Nordoff Peak using the Cozy Dell and Pratt trails. The clouds had been shifting and turning around the peak all morning, sometimes shrouding the lookout tower in a clammy fog. It was getting cold and wet up here. Done with everything up here I decided it was time to go down.

Those of you with Bryan Conant's map of the Matilija backcountry may be aware that his maps feature a bit more historical information than most (which is a good thing), paying special note to long lost and "historic" trails". Describing these routes as "historic" is merely a euphemism for "decades of unchecked Los Padres brush". In other words, nearly impossible. Those dark green lines on Conant's maps show us how much more open and accessible our backcountry used to be. Many's the time I've wished that the Bald Hills Trail or the Pacific View Trail were still in existence, just to name a few. It just so happens that one of those dark green lines zig and zag down the west ridge of Nordoff Peak, descending into Wheeler Hot Springs. I thought I'd go give it a look, problem is that by the time Trail 22W05 terminates, one has already descended almost 1,000 feet over nearly 2 miles. By that time, turning around and going back seems like a lousy option. But I get ahead of myself.

From Nordoff Pk, go West on Ridge Rd (Trail 22W05), take non-existent green trail to Hwy33. Enjoy!
This shows the day's entire route.
I left the tower and a mile later I was standing in front of the sign, the one that should have had opposing arrows saying Easy Way and Don't Go Here. I continued west on Trail 22W05. All morning I had been on well traveled paths. That all changed pretty abruptly in a short time. As I started down 22W05 I noticed a lot of mountain bike tracks, but these tracks quickly ended, returning the way they'd come. The grassy road descended quickly and for a while I had unique views of either Dry Lakes Ridge or the Ojai Valley. The sky had darkened and a cool breeze brought a wet mist, a precursor to the eventual rain and snow that came later. I kept rolling down this long and scenic grade, not thinking about much until it dawned on me that this idea of mine had better work out. I was now officially a long way from anywhere if I were forced to stick to a trail.

I was still chewing on that last thought when I walked into a small dirt roundabout. I guessed I had reached the end of 22W05 proper. There were no tracks, nothing to indicate the last passers by. The terminus of the road was a circle of dirt perched atop the ridge I'd been descending. I paced around the edges of the dead end and quickly discovered what looked like a path heading west through stunted chaparral and charred manzanita. I did a full sweep around the circle. All that greeted my eyes was a sea of brush. Something else caught my eye, an abandoned and rusty mountain bike (ala Walmart quality). This was an old bike, the tires were cracked and the seat vinyl was eaten away by UV. If it had a voice, the tale this poor bike could tell. On that ominous note I continued west off this hill.
Clearly a bad day.

The early part of the descent from the road was fairly open.

Things went pretty well for about half a mile. What I really thought was that this was too easy, and that this "trail" weaving through increasingly tall stands of brush was simply the wake other lost souls whose bones I'd find somewhere down there. Another half mile and I realized that I was committed to this nonsense. I could hear vehicles on the 33 below and through the mist I could see into the Matilija watershed. It felt pretty odd, hearing vehicles and seeing landmarks I recognized. From where I stood, the guy down there gunning his Harley might as well be on the moon. I knew exactly where I was. I had passed the point of going back. This simplifies things, as quitting is no longer an option.

I ran across this old sign early in my trip through Brush Landia.
As I descended things went downhill (intended). The brush got healthier, taller, more abundant, fulminant, profuse, verdant, virile. You know, worse. I still felt that I really was on some sort of path with an old feel. A metal sign caught my eye, and even lower down the ridge I broke through brush only to find a lonely trail duck. Yeah, I was on Conant's 'historic trail", at least some of the time. The brush fight really got underway less than a mile below the end of 22W05. Please see video below.

About half way down the "route" I found this old duck.

I had crashed into a solid wall of brush. Manzanita wrestled with each other for light, growing up to ten feet tall. Beneath this hardwood canopy lay years of entangled plants and vines, living and dead. I pushed and shoved, twisted and fought. In some places the stuff was so deep my feet wouldn't touch ground and I had to use my poles like one would if trying to escape a hole in the ice. I did some rolling around on top of this stuff until I fell through or could get my feet under me. I slithered under some of the brush for 30 feet at a time, worming head first down hill. The only thing I had going for me was gravity. There would be no going uphill through this. 

A look back up some of what I had descended.

About halfway down this wooded hell I realized I had to stop for a minute. I needed a break, a moment. I stopped right where I was, sat down in the wet leaves under tall branches of manzanita. It was one of the strangest breaks I have ever taken. Wet from head to toe. A bit cold. Muddy and crusted with plant parts. Plunked down in this claustrophobic pocket, breathing nothing but wet sage. Feeling the brush pressing against something foreign, some insignificant thing made of flesh. I imagine that I can feel the brush reaching for me. Like the Ferryman, it reaches for payment with bony fingers. I realize I'm bleeding from a scratch below my lip. I swab some of the blood on a manzanita. Tell it, "There, I paid my taxes. Now let me out of here."

This battle continued for an absurdly long time, and increasingly I could see the highway. The slope I was on steepened and a bit later I got my foot really stuck in a manzanita's roots. I tugged and tugged but all I did was bruise the top of my foot. I had to do some yoga inside this giant manzanita in order to be able to get my shoe off and save my foot. It was very awkward and I wish it hadn't happened. After that incident I just kept busting downhill. I worked down the slope, angling toward a fold in the mountain and a drainage to the roadside creek below. I broke free of the brush (and there was much rejoicing). A quick descent of this minor drainage put me into N Fork Matilija Creek just below the old Wheeler Hot Springs, which is incidental (I had long ago lost the last trace of whatever trail may have been here.). I clambered up onto the shoulder of the 33 and turned downhill with a thumb out. Never did get a ride. 


  1. Glad to see that you're back in the bush! Thoroughly entertaining write-up, as always.

    - Jiroch

  2. Damn Stillman, you're a beast. Glad I wasn't with you that day.


  3. Glad to hear you enjoyed the hike. Any info on the history of this trail or how it came to be abandoned?


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Sorry Don, no idea of it's original name or anything else about it's history. DS

  6. I went due south from near/at the end of the road and it wasn't bad dropping right down to 33, mostly along an old animal trail, and ending up near some guy's little private inholding with some flowing water in a tiny side ravine. I saw that mountain bike, too,this being probably 8 years ago or so.
    I've wondered about that old "trail", and we explored it from the bottom one day and saw new cuttings and tools left in the trail, which contoured south a bit before turning east and north. When the cutting stopped so did we!