Monday, May 5, 2014

Whitaker Peak Attempted via Sharps Canyon

Blue Point on the left with Whitaker Peak center right.
Once in a while those great ideas aren't.
The day preceding this one I'm about to write about was a complete bust. I'd scrambled up a nasty drainage looking for something that eluded me, something I'll be going back for now that I've had a chance to back off and look at it again. Today though, this one was going really well until it abruptly wasn't. I'll explain.

So close...
Whitaker Peak (not to be confused with Whiteacre Peak) can be found along the far western border of the Angeles National Forest, just a few miles northeast of Piru Lake. The traditional way to reach the summit, which also has a lookout and communication towers of the same name just a short distance away, starts from the Templin Highway adjacent to Interstate-5. I haven't been there yet and in looking over the route I noted that the entire way to the summit is simply road miles. Boooor-ing! I started looking around for a potential route to the summit that offered something of a challenge. Peering at the topos and satellite info led me to believe that a narrow slot canyon which takes off from Piru Creek might lend itself to such an idea. Sharps Canyon was worth a go.

First, just getting to the mouth of the canyon required a >6 mile bike ride. If there were sufficient water in the lake then the upper boat ramp would be open and the ride would only have been about 5 miles. Not the case. This lake road is kind of a pain in the ass. It has roughly equal measures of uphill and downhill whichever way one travels. I rolled through the long abandoned Blue Point Campground and pulled off just a short distance from Wheeler Ranch. A short scrum through ceanothus put me in a deep gully, the real start of my day.

This gully soon narrowed to a twisting slot canyon which seldom opened up wider than 25 feet. A small stream of brackish water trickled downstream through increasingly dense stands of willow and nettles. Fortunately for me the nettles weren't flowering just yet. The walls of this gully rose steeply to either side and were predominantly comprised of loose soil and cobbles with occasional bands of shale and poor quality sandstone. There were also portions of the drainage that consisted entirely of spongy mineral and salt deposits. Some parts of the gully narrowed to such a degree that I could almost reach each side of the steep slot with arms spread. In the wider, airier portions of the creek I struggled with thick brush, deadfalls and drift wood. It was within such a scenario that I got the jolt of a lifetime.

I had a tangled up jumble of drift wood to get through. I weighted a couple criss-crossed branches that could support me, stepped up, got my balance, and started plotting the next four or five steps which would get me past the wood pile. You see where this is going. I glanced down to check my footing and caught just a glimmer of movement under the wood heap in front of me. I didn't think anything of it, if anything I thought it was probably a lizard. I put a foot down on the next branches and right then the buzzer went off. I'd just put my weight on some sticks, a precarious perch, under which was a small portion of a large rattlesnake. And he was mad about it. My ankle was roughly a foot from the pointy end of this snake. I jumped but my foot got tangled up in some branches and I went down on the wood pile. I damn near panicked. I scrambled and thrashed off that wood heap as quickly as humanly possible and I'm sure that in better circumstances my antics would have been hilarious to watch. I don't know if that snake struck at me or not and I don't want to know, but I can tell you all that I've had at least six distinct times that by rights I should gotten bit by rattlesnakes. This incident was the closest I ever came. Freaked me the f**k out. 

What one thinks about once the excitement wears off a tad is what the hell would happen in the event of a rattlesnake envenomation. Never mind that I myself am living proof that they don't really want to bite you. What would I do? Here I am in narrow slot, with no cell service, no straightforward way to get out of there, unsure wether my SPOT would even work here never mind how long a real response and rescue would take. Such a situation would totally suck, be exceedingly painful and would likely be life threatening in a very short period of time. What would I do? I don't have an answer for that question. No coherent plan on file. I just do not know. It goes without saying that I hope you and I never have to find out what that situation is like.

California Damsel.
Some distance from that scene the canyon turned into a deep "V" slot. The brush thinned out and I thought I really was getting somewhere even though the nature of this slot had denied me a line of site to the peak from the get go. I entered a hidden garden of blooming wildflowers and bees and butterflies. The air smelled of young sage and green grass. My nerves settled down and I enjoyed a brief breakfast while watching a dozen California Damsels flutter here and there.

From this point on the canyon presented with variations of the same theme. Brush, wood piles, grassy straightaways, short waterfall scrambles, mineral rich earth, forests of nettle and willow, the odd sycamore or oak tree, shale slides, typical Piru stuff. It was in a high section of the drainage, just a mile under the summit that I hit an obstacle I could not bypass. 

Flowering sage. 

Some part of this route were quite pretty.
Entire walls of this canyon were made up of mineral and salt deposits.

In the end it was a twelve foot high waterfall that stopped me cold. I'm not a bad climber so I found this stupid little waterfall to be insulting. The canyon had narrowed to a slot with steep and high vertical shale walls and right in the middle of it was this little waterfall, just five feet wide and dressed in streamers of green algae. I stood there appraising the falls, trying to puzzle out how to get past it. The base material of the falls was neither shale nor sandstone but that same mineral deposit crap in the photo above, the stuff with the consistency of halva (you know, that Middle Eastern confection that you might get a yen for once every eight years or so?). Anyway, I tried six different ways to get up the thing. Water poured off the top, the algae was slick, and everything I clung to or toed off of crumbled beneath me. On my last try I got about eight feet off the ground and while lunging for a desperate knob at the top off the falls my feet just went out and I crashed in a wet and disgusted heap in the puddle beneath the falls. I was kind of scraped up, wet, and my ass hurt. Fine. That's just how it was going to be. I'd been denied. Sporting a rueful grin I put myself together and went back the way I'd come, paying special attention to those wood piles where the rattlers lurk.

Typical of the brushy portions of Sharps.
Juan Jose Fustero (left) and family lived near Rancho Camulos (on what is now Hwy 126). The elder Fustero,, who died June 30, 1921 may have been the last full-blooded Tataviam Indian, though he spoke the language of the neighboring Kitanemuk of the Antelope Valley. Juan is believed to buried under what is now Lake Piru.


  1. The road goes to the old lookout site, so it isn't quite all a road walk. There is the one last sprint through quite reasonable brush to get to the real peak. And not only is it road, but half of it is paved. The paved part can be shortcut via one of two trails that reach the ridge from old 99. Me, I save the thoughts of challenge for Dome Mountain.

    I've been wondering what the logistics for hiking out of Piru were, although it is much wider Canton that has caught my eye.

  2. Was getting anxious just reading about the (impending) snake bite. Close call! And certainly just about the worst possible setting for getting oneself immobilized with an injury like that.

    Piru continues to dish out punishment.

    I've always believed those big snags of dead, piled wood in and along creek beds to be prime snake habitat. I've never actually seen a rattler in one of those snags/piles, but for some reason, I'm always expecting there to be. Apparently with good cause for concern. Glad you made it out relatively unscathed.

  3. Val, thanks for clarifying the traditional route to the summit.
    Nick, as we have both discovered, the Piru region is just crawling with snakes. I should have been a bit more focused on that truth. Yup, that was a close one. -DS

  4. I have always heard that the former lookout on Whitaker Peak was moved to the summit of Slide Mt. when Pyramid Lake was forming. Also, to piggyback Valerie, the route I always take is the Oak Flat Trail to the top of the ridge and then the fireroad to Whitaker. It's about a 10 mile RT form that point.

  5. Great TR.

    I looked up Juan Jose Fustero and I found an interesting article in the Fillmore Gazette.
    I'm not sure if you read it but I enjoyed the read.

  6. David,

    Glad I found your blog - damn, dude, that was a close one. I had an even closer call with a Mojave Green in Utah when entering the top of the Narrows from the north end - story for another day! Anyway, if you want to get up that waterfall, you need some friends with some rope skills - canyoneers! Well, today's your lucky day. My buddies and I go looking for slots like this to discover new climbing and rappelling routes. Shoot my an email if you want to get back up Sharps and see what's beyond that falls: Dan