Monday, November 28, 2016

Castle Peak, El Escorpion Park High Point

Hiked: 11/27/2016
Distance: 3.3 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 1639' (High Point), 1550' (Castle)
Elevation Gain: 1090'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.87
Round trip time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Recommended water: 32 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free on Woodglade Lane (or Vanowen Street)
Difficulty: Easy

Castle Peak is a popular scramble in El Escorpion Park in Los Angeles. I chose it as a bonus hike on the way back from Cachuma Mountain. The park is also home to the Cave of Munits, but I didn't make it to the cave on this trip. The main entrance to the park is on Vanowen Street. I drove right by it having done almost no prep for this hike. I drove around the neighborhood and asked someone how to get to the park. I was directed to a back entrance trail, resulting in a unique approach to Castle Peak. I recommend sticking with the main entrance.

I started down the trail behind the park, finding a museum of rock graffiti. I continued down the trail looking for a way up in the direction of Castle Peak. I found a use trail heading up a gully and took it. Past the gully, the trail faded, leaving a short bushwhack to a clearing below the rocks on the north side of the park. I climbed a 15' section of conglomerate rock, breaking off large chunks along the way. The rocks on the north side were rotten. At the top, I could see Castle Peak and the park high point along the next ridge over. There was a good use trail that got me to the correct ridge and since the high point was closest, I stopped there first.

Castle Peak from my parking spot

Back door trail to the park

Graffiti spot

Use trail up the gully

Crumbly north side rocks and ascent line

View west from the high point

From the high point, it was about a quarter mile to Castle Peak. The formation looked like a giant termite mound. The summit can be reached with a couple of easy class 3 moves. On top, I started thinking about the best way back to my car. I could descend the south side of Castle Peak, then walk along the road or try to find a better way down the north side of the park. I saw a trail winding to the north and gave that a go. It went around the north side but then angled west. I ran into a graffiti coated arch and a private property sign warning hikers and bikers of prosecution. I could see the road and thought in the worst case I could bail out onto the road. Seeing no fence, I marched ahead passing another park area. I followed a trail that curled back along the road in the direction I needed to go. I jogged this section and sure enough, it merged with the public trail past another private property sign. Lack of preparation rarely leads to the best outcome and this was no exception.

Approaching Castle Peak

Looking down the north side toward my car

Looking back at the high point

On the way back to the north side trail

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cachuma Mountain

Hiked: 11/27/2016
Distance: 7.7 miles round trip on dirt road and use trail
Summit Elevation: 4696'
Prominence: 536'
Elevation Gain: 1650'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.32
Round trip time: 2 hours 50 minutes
Recommended water: 48 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Difficulty: Moderate

Cachuma Mountain comes in at #6 on the Lower Peaks list, one of the few in Los Padres National Forest. The hike starts from Cachuma Saddle, a pretty remote location. To get there, take the 101 north out of LA, then go north on highway 154 just north of Santa Barbara. After 11 miles, turn right on Armour Ranch Road, go 1.3 miles, then right again on Happy Canyon Road. Continue on Happy Canyon Road about 37 miles to Cachuma Saddle. You might find cows along one section of the road and there are warning signs. There is also a short stretch of easy dirt road before it becomes paved again. It is a remote trailhead, and I remember thinking I didn't want to get a flat tire or have car trouble this far out. The lack of cell service would have left me to fix any problem myself. Fortunately, I didn't have any car trouble and ended up being the only car at the trailhead.

There was a light rain falling when I parked and it didn't let up while I was on the mountain. I put on my waterproof shell, and got ready for a cold shower. Low clouds limited visibility. I took off at a steady pace, following Cachuma road. It had rained the day before so the road was muddy. I tried to stay just off the road in the grass, sacrificing wet pants to keep mud from building up on my boots. About a mile up the road, I found a string of bear prints. One larger set and one smaller set. Both looked fresh. The prints kept me company for another couple of miles, fading away near the end. When I got to the last saddle, there was some residual snow along the edge of the road. I could finally make out the top of Cachuma through the clouds.

Starting at Cachuma Saddle

Bear print

Looking back at the road

Use trail to the summit

My fingers and toes starting going numb so I stopped for my first break. I put on gloves and cracked a chemical warmer for my hands. I knew I could get my toes warmed by jogging downhill after returning from the summit. I dropped my pack at the saddle and started unsteadily up the muddy use trail. One slip buried my knee in the mud, but I was a drowned rat by then so it didn't make much difference. At the summit, I had a completely worthless view due to the clouds. I took a few blurry photos with my dying camera and signed the register. I really didn't feel like flipping through it, in part to protect it from the rain. I beat a hasty retreat from the summit, gathered my pack and started jogging down the road where it was firm enough. In two places, I followed the bear prints to side canyons where they left the road to see if I could spot the beasts. No luck either time. As I got near the bottom of the road, I was totally shocked to see someone else starting up. It was a friendly gentleman named Glen from San Luis Obispo, who also appeared to be heading up to Cachuma. We talked for a few minutes, then wished each other luck. Despite being cold, wet, and muddy, I was still up for a bonus hike to Castle Peak on the way back.

Blurry benchmark with elevation stamp, but no name

Blurry summit with small register ammo box below

Blurry register

Cachuma on descent, some of the clouds clearing

Descending to the start

Monday, November 14, 2016

Postal Ridge

Hiked: 11/14/2016
Distance: 10.1 miles one way on trail and firebreak
Summit Elevation: 2301' (Peak 2301), 3011' (Peak 3011), 3426' (Peak 3426), 3800' (Bedford Peak), 3840' (Peak 3840)
Elevation Gain: 3680'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.94
Round trip time: 5 hours 5 minutes
Recommended water: 116 oz.
Parking/Fees: Adventure Pass
Difficulty: Moderate

The first time I hiked Peak 2301 in the Santa Ana Mountains, I wanted to continue to Peak 3011 and up the ridge to Bedford Peak and beyond. However, the Silverado Fire closure order was in effect at the time. The closure order was lifted in September and I got a chance at "Postal" ridge (since it starts by the Silverado post office) on an unusual Monday off due to Veterans Day falling on a Friday.

The agenda was to hit peaks in this order:
  1. Peak 2301
  2. Peak 3011
  3. Peak 3426
  4. Bedford Peak (3800')
  5. Peak 3840
Since they had the day off too, Steve and Noel joined me, though Noel opted to skip the ridge and take the Silverado Trail up to the intersection with the ridge, then meet us on Peak 3426. I dropped off my car at the Maple Springs Visitor Center so we could finish there and Steve drove us down Silverado Canyon to the base of the ridge near the post office. We started up a good use trail and climbed 1100' to Peak 2301. I remembered to bring a small notebook to add to the register box, an improvement over the loose scraps of paper filling it. We took a short breather, then started down the other side to a saddle, appreciating the size of Peak 3011 looming above -- the centerpiece of the ridge. A trail led down into Ladd Canyon, but we took the firebreak leading up. It was easy to follow and most of it was just high angle class 1 dirt. There were a couple of short sections that required hands for balance and some light bushwhacking. It was a 1000' gain in less than a mile before it leveled out near the top. The summit was a pile of rocks with no signs of previous visitors or official marks. There were interesting views of Pleasants Peak and Hagador Peak. After another short break, we started toward Peak 3426, where we could see Noel pacing around, waiting for us.

Good views about half way to Peak 2301

Peak 3011 from Peak 2301

Climbing the firebreak to Peak 3011, Peak 2301 behind

Half way point on Peak 3011

Steve and I on the summit of Peak 3011

Looking up at Peak 3426

The route to Peak 3426 was slightly overgrown with harsh grasses. Easy enough to wade through while climbing another 500' dirt section. We reached 3426 and Noel joined us as we traveled under an electrical tower before hitting the junction with the Silverado Trail. We followed the single track to Main Divide Road, turning northeast to reach Bedford Peak. The benchmark was vandalized and has been missing for a while, but the register was there in an ammo box. I signed us in, then walked over to the bench on the summit. The old bench had collapsed, but a newer one dedicated to someone named "Gary" was there. It had taken us a little longer than planned to reach Bedford. Steve and Noel were ready to head back while I continued on to Peak 3480. I dropped off the east side of Bedford, then followed Main Divide another half mile before reaching the firebreak up to Peak 3480. The summit of 3480 was wide and flat. The high point was easy to spot and I found an Orange County benchmark dislodged from it's original location. It was out of the ground but embedded in cement with the anchoring pole still attached. There was no register. I had clear views of the San Gabriels, Lake Elsinore, and the San Bernardino mountains in the distance. Generally the same views you get from Bedford Peak. I looked around the summit area finding nothing else of interest, then descended back to the road. When I got to the Silverado Trail, I followed it down to my car at the Visitor Center. We didn't see anyone else the whole day. Damage from the 2014 Silverado Fire was apparent across most of the area, but that didn't diminish a fun ridge exploration.

Sidebar on the difficulty rating: I try to rate hike difficulty using the subjective Sierra Club rating system -- from Easy to Very Strenuous. With only four ratings, there are some big variations. While the regular Bedford Peak hike on the Silverado Trail is on the lower end of Moderate, this one is on the upper end. It is significantly more difficult than the regular Bedford trail.

Looking back at Peak 3011 from Peak 3426

Heading to the junction with the Silverado Trail

Bedford Peak and Peak 3840 from the Silverado Trail

Bedford Peak register

Gary's bench on Bedford Peak

Firebreak to Peak 3840

Orange County benchmark on Peak 3840

Lake Elsinore and the San Bernardino Mountains in the distance

Burn damage looking toward Modjeska

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Square Top

Hiked: 10/31/2016
Distance: 8.4 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 4649'
Elevation Gain: 2950'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.36
Round trip time: 7 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 92 oz.
Parking/Fees: $10 Los Coyotes Reservation day hike fee
Difficulty: Strenuous (class 5 summit block)

Square Top is #34 on the San Diego Peaks List. The trailhead is near the end of Tukwet Road in the Los Coyotes Reservation. The dirt roads leading there are relatively smooth until you reach Tukwet Road. A low clearance vehicle could probably make it, but there are some deep ruts and vegetation that will slap the underside of your vehicle. Square Top is the only San Diego Sierra Club peak with a class 5 summit block. I wanted to do this hike solo to test my novice rope skills. I don't aspire to do big walls, or even trad climbing, but I do want to be able to handle an occasional class 5 problem or canyon rappel.

Are you on the square?
Are you on the level?
Are you ready to swear right here, right now
Before the devil
-- Ghost BC, Square Hammer

I arrived before the Los Coyotes station opened, so I taped my day hike fee plus enough to cover my previous trips in an envelope to the station door. Nothing wrong with a little karma. The trail started by descending the remaining section of Tukwet Road into Cougar Canyon. Square Top was visible from the trailhead but disappeared as I descended. Once you get into Cougar Canyon, a faint use trail comes and goes, but it is generally easy to find your way even if you lose the trail. I crossed water in the canyon several times before reaching the point to leave the canyon and head toward the granite pinnacles guarding Square Top. Some of the boulders making up the pinnacles and on the slopes of Square Top are enormous. I skirted the flank of a prominent pinnacle, then followed the remnants of an old road before dropping down into the south fork of Sheep Canyon. I took a short water break there and cleared my shoes of debris. As I started up the south slope of Square Top, I had problems with my make-shift rope bag. I packed the rope, rock shoes, gloves, webbing, autoblock, and carabiners in a bag meant for snowshoes. It weighed 12 pounds and had a strap that I carried over my shoulder. While convenient for packing, it was a nightmare when I tried any kind of scrambling. Not only was the extra weight slowing me down, scrambling caused the bag to slide around and create imbalances. Square Top was steep class 2, and it was tiring to carry all that gear up to the summit area.

Sunlight starting to flow through the canyons in Los Coyotes Reservation

Square Top from the start

Entering a fork of Cougar Canyon

One of several deer I spotted

Leaving the canyon

Heading toward the pinnacles area

Boulder near one of the pinnacles

Approaching Square Top

Starting up the south slope

Looking back near the top of the south slope

Once I got to the top, I unpacked the rope and gear, then walked around the summit block to figure out the best direction to make my attempt. The west side looked like the easiest (as other reports had mentioned) so I started hunting for an anchor on the other side. I thought finding a nearby anchor might be difficult, but I found a good boulder leaning against the east side. I wrapped 1" nylon webbing under the boulder and evened it out in a basket hitch. I tied the ends in an overhand knot to create a master point. It felt solid. Next, I attached the rope to the anchor with a figure 8 follow through and two opposite and opposed carabiners. The next step was to throw the rope over the summit block. This turned out to be my biggest problem. The 40m static 9mm rope I brought ended up being too long, but better to bring one too long than too short. My first throw went over the wrong edge and I couldn't position it correctly. My next nine plus throws, I lost count, were whipped off the north side by a strong and steady 25mph wind. The wind gusted up to 40mph and it created havoc with my throws. I tried to compensate by throwing the rope south without luck. I thought seriously about giving up on the rope, but I didn't want to try an unprotected ascent with the wind howling so hard. Finally, I tied a knot to the loose end and attached three carabiners. I eventually got the rope over. The last thing to do was get my harness on and set up the two prusik knots I used to ascend. The beginning of the block is vertical with no real holds. I used the lower prusik as a foothold, and the upper as protection, alternating the load between the two to move the other one up. This was my first time to perform a prusik ascent. I had not even tried it once in a gym. Do or die, baby! It was kind of an awkward ascent, but it worked. After I got past the vertical section, I left the lower prusik behind. The rock after that was more of a class 3 friction climb and I just used the upper prusik as protection. Just over half way, a gust of wind tore my hat off and it tumbled over the side. I was too stoked to worry about it and reached the top shortly after. I had set up my camera below to record my victory or demise. Later, I discovered the wind had turned it to record a random spot on the ground. I did haul up the Ricoh Theta for a 360 shot from the summit, something that would have been impossible using my phone. I also carried my phone up and fought the wind to take a few photos and a poor attempt at a selfie. The wind was too strong to stay on the summit block for long. I had planned to rappel down with an ATC-XP, but decided to descend with the prusik instead. In all, I spent about an hour and a half on the summit.

Rope throw


West side of the summit block

Looking down from the summit on the east side (anchor side)

Looking down from the summit on the west side (ascent side)

Poor selfie taken during wind blasts

Final resting place of my hat

Back on the ground, I hunted down my hat and checked out the register. The register was in a pair of yellow cans, a variation on the normal red. There were two small registers inside, the oldest one going back to 1991. The newer one was made of strips of old computer greenbar paper and had a lot of familiar names. I found a small spot to sign and replaced everything. There was no benchmark that I noticed. Heading down Square Top, I had the same imbalance issues with my rope bag. Maybe I'll try bringing a large pack that I can stuff all the gear into next time. The return around the pinnacles went easily. As I dropped back into Cougar Canyon, something large crashed through the small trees. I am guessing it was a mule deer since I had seen four on the day, but in Cougar Canyon, who knows. Whatever it was went unseen. The canyon looked quite different going back and I had to check my GPS a couple of times to get back on track. I was quite pleased when I got back to the car. This hike was a long term goal. A transcendental object at the end of time. Getting the class 5 block and handling every aspect of the rope system was a first for me. This was one of a handful of hikes where I came back a different person.

Collins Valley and assorted benchmarks below, Toro Peak distant left

Collins Benchmark, a tough SDC hike for the future

Rock solidified in smooth, sharp perfection

More interesting jumbles

Returning to Cougar Canyon, Pike BM in the distance

Other Trip Reports:
Square Top (Peaks for Freaks)
Square Top (Benjamin Baumann)

Square Top has a middle finger profile