Thursday, November 1, 2012

Topatopa Peak Fire Lookout from Hines Peak [SVS], 10/30/12

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.

I spent my on-call weekend (when I wasn't at the hospital) poring over Google Earth and NatGeo Maps, parsing a long and benignly pixelated ridge. I can already tell that the satellite imagery is several years out of date, probably five or so years. The imagery shows very recent burn area from the 2006 Day Fire. So I can anticipate far more brush than the intel would suggest. There are no springs, no water of any kind on Topatopa Ridge. I can rest assured that there will be many, many brutal climbs and reciprocal losses of elevation. There will be brush and blood. There will be sweat and dirt and miles of fire-charred manzanita. Every step will be a small victory. I actually get the jitters 2 nights before I take off for this one. I don't get the jitters anymore. My subconscious is telling me to take this one seriously. I listen: map, compass, GPS, SPOT, extra batteries, calories, a great big knife, .40 cal, 6 liters of water and perverse sense of "fun".

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.

I routinely start high mileage days well before the sun is up. It is an interesting time of day, and the right time to put down miles. On my way over to Hines Peak I encountered three small owls (Bard owls?), one of which sat on a branch just out of reach (I got a pic but it wasn't good enough for a positive ID). I also walked up to a couple of deer at the saddle between Hines and the Bluffs. The deer really don't know what to do about an approaching headlamp. It's kind of funny. I continued east and before long I had passed the turnoff for Last Chance and Ladybug. I climbed the steep slope up Hines in the dark. No big.

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.


  1. Remarkable story; I have been around long enough to know people who summited Topatopa Peak via the old trail before the Condor Sanctuary closure. I am unaware of anyone taking this approach successfully anytime from the late 1960s through the 1980s when I was constantly in the forest. I suspect the Forest Service might not approve but I certainly approve (for what it's worth) of the application of the skills of this author / adventurer to this problem. I also agree that few others should try it.

  2. Thanks EM, it took all I had and a little bit more. -Stillman

  3. David, I should say some of your posts have inspired me to hit some areas you went through already. I am really impressed by you taking this whole ridge in a day, not gonna lie I am slightly disappointed I was hoping to tackle this peak relatively soon, but I was gonna follow the old trail route. USFS must hate people like us.

  4. Hey Chris, how you been? Glad to hear you are out there pounding dirt. I can't speak to the old route up Topa, but if you do go I'd like to hear about it.
    As to the USFS, all I can say is it's awful hard to keep an eye on the wilderness from behind a desk. Guys like us shouldn't be their priority anyway. Thanks for keeping in touch.

  5. you are a danger to yourself.
    you have a death wish.
    you have an insatiable craving to go where most dare not.
    having said that, congrats on a successful stroll in no man's land.
    i'm envious.

  6. Unfortunately I resemble that remark. Except for the death wish part. I was born lucky. Old Man Reaper must hate my guardian angel. I never should have made it to 30, and now I'm 40. What hasn't killed me has indeed made me stronger. We all owe a death, it's how you live that matters.

  7. Congratulations, that was quit a hike. I know of several people who have tried the ridge route. The furthest any of them got was to the airplane. I was with the group of 5 which left the register. We started at the same location as you but did it as a backpack. We dropped to Last Chance Camp and then traveled cross country to pick up the old trail at the third saddle and then followed the old trail to the peak. The Day Fire didn’t burn the brush in the first two saddles and the trail in impassable.

  8. Hey Kim, I've run across your name a time or two on different summits. What you did to get to Topa sounds like an enormous pain in the ass, which an appropriate descriptor of the total Topa package. Glad to make your acquaintance. -Stillman

  9. I enjoyed reading your story and long for days like this solo in LPNF. Great effort and success on your part on a tough day... I had to laugh when I read about the self-administered IV.. must have been a really tough day... I have run into your name along some of my explorations in the backcountry... see you out there some day...

  10. Thanks Gravityh, I'm trying hard to forget what I put myself through that day. -Stillman

  11. When was the picnic table put in? It does not show in the pictures on from the 90's ( lookout! Story)
    I've looked at the summit route longingly on google maps as well, thanks for saving me some pain!

  12. I have a very large detailed group of Topa Topa Fire Lookout photos taken in 1998. It was in great condition and full of artifacts. Opened the lookout for the day and just hung out and enjoyed the remoteness of the site. Plese let me know if you would like the photos.

  13. Anonymous hello,
    I sure wish I could have seen that. I'd really like to see those pics, and I'd like to have permission to post them, photo credit is, of course yours. If they aren't scanned I'd be happy to do that. I'd return your photos with a disc. Those would be neat to see. -DS

  14. Hey Jon,
    I'm not much of a historian. Craig would know more of the dirt per-Day Fire. As stated in my post, I would discourage a repeat of my route. That ridge sucks. -DS

  15. David, a friend directed me to your post. I enjoyed your descriptions and your prose. You have a nice way of capturing the essence of bush-whacking in the Sespe.
    In March of 2006, just before the Day Fire, I managed to make it up from the West Fork to the Tower. The canyon I went up was serious bear country and I heard them around my tent all night long, as I was apparently sleeping in the bear path. The next morning I shot for the peak and toward the end, I was crawling through a Manzanita bear tunnel for quite a ways on my hands and knees until the chaparral broke and the tower magically appeared before me. I probably have the last photos taken of the tower before the big burn that Fall. It had search and rescue gear in it and even a CB radio. I guess they set this up as a rescue base back then.
    I was ecstatic to have made it; so much so, that I set out again in November that year, just after the fire, to approach Topatopa from Santa Paula Canyon. After Last Chance, I bushwhacked until I found the old trail, dry camped on it, and the next morning (after some strong coffee…) followed it all the way to the tower. On my way back, not too distant from the tower, I saw something reflecting off in the distance and to my amazement, found what is probably the helicopter wreck. The aluminum has all melted away in the fire(s), but the frame is there, along with various engine parts, seat frames, control cables, etc. It was fascinating and I have photos of the wreckage. I had assumed it was the rumored airplane wreck at the time, but this didn’t look like a plane (which I must have bypassed in the route I chose). I managed to make it all the way back to Last Chance camp that night. There are some real nice springs in the canyon I went down through from the ridge, which essentially saved me as I was totally out of water at that point.
    Through these adventures, I have a good set of “before and after” the burn shots of the fire watch tower. These were definitely the most intense solo trips I have embarked on – definitely “Cast Iron!”

  16. Olin, you must be a tough sonuvagun. As you well know, that damn mountain is just tough however you get there. Nice job documenting the tower. I was pretty pleased to get some photos of the tower from 1998. Will be back in that zip code this pending. I remember your name from a few summits I've visited. Nice to here from you. -DS

  17. That tower has taunted me every time I climb Hines. In 2005 made it to second peak past Hines but had to turn back from that chapparal jungle! Some amazing country back there.

  18. What a fantastic story - this trip to Topatopa lookout. I always wanted to go up there. your recollections of the brutality of the hike reminded me of my own horror of trying to navigate into that area. I never thought I would see that air plane wreak again. In 1977 I spent two months living way up the West Fork of the Sespe. I had my own swimming pool, waterfall and spring with which to ponder life, which I did in complete solitude the entire time. After two months I decided I wanted still more time but was running low on provisions. Rather that hiking all the way down the sespe to Filmore, I decided to try and bushwack up to the headwaters of the west fork and over the ridge that separates the upper West Fork and the Santa Paula Canyon. To make a long story short, I spent two days trying to forge a path out of the canyon and up the ridge put could not penetrate the brush. Utterly defeated I spent one long night haunted with bears as (like another poster has mentioned above) this was obviously a major bear path. During my entire two months I was only aware of a bear visit into my camp on one or two occasions. But on this night they seemed to circling around me all night long. Anyway, hiking out of that dreadful dead end, I looked way up on the ridge of Topatopa and saw a airplane that had crashed - the same plane obviously as the one photographed in this blog posting. This is the first and only time I have ever heard about that plane since 1977.