Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hildreth Peak from Hwy 33 via Potrero Seco [29.6mi]

I'll concede up front that this wasn't necessarily the smartest thing I've ever done. Taking "the long way" to Hildreth Peak has been on my mind for over a year. I guess I thought it would be a pretty gnarly challenge. I was right about that. 

Detail of the day's route.
What's so special about Hildreth Peak? Nothing, except that it's way the hell out in the middle of the Dick Smith Wilderness. It's also a Sierra Club Peak, and when done as they suggest, starts from the Agua Caliente trailhead behind Santa Barbara, going as a 16 mile round trip hike with 4,700ft of elevation gain. Frankly, that sounded pretty reasonable. In other words, I wasn't interested.

By contrast, this thing I'd been planning to do came in at 29.6 miles with 8,100ft of elevation gain on the day.

Elevation profile for the round trip.

I started the day a bit concerned about the heat index. I thought, "Please just let them be wrong." I took off from Hwy 33 weighed down by 7.5 liters of water and very little else. The first four miles were generally downhill into Potrero Seco. There's a hidden ranch back here, a small, family owned operation. They aren't running any cattle this year, probably on account of the drought. I think there are only two wells on the entire place. One neat fun fact about this ranch is that, on wet years the water flowing down from these meadows becomes Sespe Creek. This is where it all starts.

I did some mental gambling and left 1.5 liters near the ranch and kept on truckin'.
Madulce Peak from somewhere west of the 3 Sisters
The road down to the ranch continues south for the next 4 miles, generally climbing toward a jagged ridge called the 3 Sisters. There are some elevation losses in this stretch, part of the cumulative ups and down that were going to become the theme of the day. The road crests at a pile of weathered sandstone boulders where the junction for the jeep trail to Hildreth Peak departs Potrero Seco Rd. Here I took a couple minutes to cool down. The day was getting hot and it hadn't even gotten hard yet. I'd done 8 miles and had 6+ to go to reach the summit. I put 500ccs of water in me, left a liter in the shade of the rocks, and got back in it. Headin' west.  

Hildreth Peak is way out in the distance and a little left.
A little closer in this shot.
And again...

The jeep track heads pretty much due west, riding the crest of an arid ridge for 6.+ miles to the summit. This ridge...well, it sucks. It goes up and down an awful lot. For more than an hour I got to watch the peak get incrementally closer. I'd crest another rise on the ridge and there it would be, seemingly no closer. This up/down stuff just went on and on. Eventually I rounded the summit of another high point and before me lay an unobstructed view to the peak. Oddly, I wasn't just looking across a huge gap at it, but was actually looking down on it to a degree. Getting there looked awful, but first I'd have to lose a 1,000ft just to get under it. Why the hell had I done this to myself? Best to leave that one alone as I wasn't even halfway through the day yet. I shrugged and started downhill.

On the way down I made a mental note that parts of this descent were the steepest angle I'd been on all day, and that I'd have to somehow get back up all this. Also, the day was starting to feel wickedly hot by this time. Having bottomed out below the summit I proceeded to climb the peak. The road twisted steeply, very steeply in places. I was pouring sweat, tachycardic, and only about half way up this last push to the summit when I felt myself getting overheated. Raw heat radiated off my face and body. I crawled under a manzanita and let my heart rate come down. This was no good. One thing I did while in the shade was strip off my underwear, giving myself better venting through my shorts. Going commando has helped me dump heat before. Grim news, my gauge showed the temp in the low 90's. I needed to slow things down. Knowing that the hardest and hottest part of the day would be the return trip, I checked on my water situation. It could have been better. 

Here's where the mental aspects of this game took on a new color. I'd have to find a way to keep on the move but not push so hard that I ran too hot, which would increase my water needs. While parked in the shade I made some disciplined choices about water rationing, a big part of which was to deny myself what I and and my body most craved.  I made a decision to be the cruelest quartermaster, also denying myself food for the next several hours (digestion requires water, water I didn't have to spare). I made a deal with myself, 5 sips through the tube every 15 minutes, 8 sips on a strictly as needed basis. I'd have to work this out, but first, the summit.

I trucked up the rest of the peak at a slower speed than usual, controlling my heart rate and respiratory pattern. I rejoiced in any transient breath of a breeze. At last I was only a couple hundred feet away from the summit, with a short brush climb from the road to go. On top I opened my shirt to the breeze and took what help I could. In the summit log I saw the usual suspects, names I should have expected based on experience. It's not a lovely place, this summit. It reminded me somewhat of the top of Chief Peak above Ojai, except that from here Madulce loomed large in the north. Big Pine, Little Pine, and Alexander Peak rose in the west, and to the south I could see Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands over the crest of the Santa Ynez range. I did my thing and got out of there, not without a little apprehension for what my future held.  

View north
View west
Looking down Potrero Seco Road, Mt Reyes in the distance.

I reached the bottom of the peak and began the brutish 2.5 mile climb back up to the ridge. This climb, challenging in it's own right, was complicated by the heat. I did not have fun. I spent the entire climb walking a fine tightrope between running hot and overheating. I dreamt of anything shady but had to accept that there'd be none until I was back at the rocks at 3 Sisters. The sun bore down like an anvil, and the heat just reflected off the track beneath me. My feet felt ablaze. I held my emotions in a crushing grip. I couldn't afford self pity, nor could I cave into the insatiable urge to drink what I needed. I developed a new mantra, one which looped in my heat addled brain, "I will not stop. I will not fail. I will not stop. I will not fail". At times I felt my pace slip away from me, my soul reduced to one heavy step at a time. This ridge was trying to kill me. And it went on without end. 

Finally I hit a downhill that dropped me into the rocks at 3 Sisters. There I grabbed my liter of life and collapsed in the cool shade of a huge boulder. I lay with my back on the cool stone, completely wrecked. I put down half my water and lay back, sipping the rest of it down while my temperature normalized. At last I opened my pack to judge how well I'd managed my water on the trip out and back. I was literally down to 2 ounces of warm water. And the disciplinarian seized hold of the day again. There'd be no joy until I made it back to the ranch. I was freshly recharged, but in no way was I fluid resuscitated. I was still dehydrated, and had 4 miles to travel before reaching my next water. I forced myself to my feet and made myself do it.

Miles to go...
That water had been enough to keep me in the game. The next hour was unpleasant but I pulled it out. I made my way back to cache #1 and bolted down a liter, saving the other 500cc for the final four miles. I don't remember those miles very well, just a seemingly endless trudgery of pain, heat, and the same all consuming thirst that had been the hallmark of this hike. I was alive and moving in the right direction. I staggered up to the truck, yanked open the door and pulled an ice cold gallon of life from the cooler. Somehow I got my shoes off and turned the ignition. I'd left here 11:05 hours ago. I was only half dead by the time I got home. Want some advice? Don't do this to yourself.


  1. Oh, I know how to make the route from the south a little less reasonable, and it has the added plus of faint trails, cross country, and/or, if you go for the extra unreasonable bits, some of the road section is abandoned to the point of only having occasional animal users. I dismissed the route from the east out of hand because it was, ahem, flat. Guess I didn't look very closely. Because it approaches the peak from above is a rather good reason too.

    (Full disclosure: minuses are parts of the road traveled are scraped and, worse, currently in use.)

  2. Awesome post and weekend David!

    Desmond H

  3. Another quality suffer-fest. Nice.

  4. Makes my springtime stroll to Hildreth after driving to 3 sisters seem like a walk in the park...