The Stars Weren’t Aligned for This One …
This was to be the second “epic” of the season: five days across the San Rafael Wilderness, from Cachuma Saddle across Mission Pine to the Buckhorn Road, and then down into the Grapevine and Santa Cruz drainages, out via 19 Oaks and to First Crossing, with some exploratory sidetrips to boot. Wicked.
Our projected path was to effect a roughly question mark-shaped route through the wilderness, and so — because we’re clever like that — we’d christened this trip The Riddler. A few tweaks to the gear list and a few extra pounds of raw steak for the pack to account for the increased mileage relative to February’s Dick Smith Brutalis, and we were ready to tick this one off the list.
We got off to a fairly late (just before noon) start on a cool and windy Saturday, and headed up the McKinley fire road from Cachuma Saddle. Coulter pines and their brain-busting, tarp-shredding and cruelly adorned cones ushered our progress up the first few miles, and as we approached the first cistern views of the Fish, Manzana, and Sisquoc drainages, Hurricane Deck, and Figueroa Mountain were impressive. To our west, Lake Cachuma was stretched out in a lazy repose, and through the fast-moving gray clouds Santa Cruz Island peeked out every so often to check our progress. This was great hiking weather — we’re built for the fog and drizzle, and enough run-off was flowing along the minor ravines that the dogs had plenty of water.
We dropped into Hell’s Half-Acre, and while in the summer the moniker might apply, not so this day. ZK made mention that any moment now we should clean up our language in case Julie Andrews came spinning across the meadow in full song.
Through the rock formation and up that long climb along McKinley Mountain’s western flank we labored, with only patches of snow here and there. It was clear sailing, and though our respective households had been fighting head colds the week previous, we were guardedly optimistic this would yield yet another excellent trek. We’d hiked McPherson Peak the week before, and had been forced by snow and trail conditions to reassess our originally-planned descent … surely we’d not suffer the same fate this trip.
Along the north-facing slope of McKinley Mountain, we encountered more snow along the road, but of course that’s to be expected. We made camp at the McKinley Spring site, threw the pack their rations, and had dinner. The temperatures hovered in the high 20s for the next twelve hours or so.
The next morning, we continued east along the road, working out of the snow and back onto good road. We took in the views from McKinley Saddle before heading up the Mission Pine trail. We could see some dusting above us toward San Rafael Mountain, but nothing that looked at all worrisome.
After the initial approach and a few switchbacks, we began working through the snow. Nothing major; a few inches of powder with a hard ice underlayer. On some of the north-facing slopes we had to posthole our route, as the ice beneath the snow made for some treacherous footing. At one point we stopped in a drift with questionable footing, and after snapping off a few obligatory photos of the Sierra Madre and putting my camera away, a mountain lion slunk across our path perhaps 100 yards up-trail. Surprised, I suffered a rare moment of speechlessness (those who know me will understand how rare an event that is, yes, yes). But then Marvin was off like a shot in pursuit of what surely to his dog brain must be the best trophy cat ever! ZK and I spent a few frantic moments (it felt like much longer) hollering at the dog to return, all the while keenly aware we were in a bad spot in terms of being able to avoid the cat should it turn brazen and come down-trail. Not a great feeling.
Marv returned without his quarry, but not overly put-out. We kept the dogs behind us and we continued to make trail. Rime from the big cone Douglas-firs in this section was falling off in large chunks, embedding ice into the powder below like some abstract xenolith art; attempts to chronicle the sound with some video failed quite completely.
ZK was ahead postholing a particularly sketchy stretch of trail when both my feet came out from beneath me and in an odd z-axis corkscrew I slid down toward the Manzana drainage. I stung my shoulder and found my left (preferred) arm completely asleep, but managed to roll once more and grab a strategically-placed mountain mahogany/ceanothus clump and stop my descent within 20 or 25 feet of the trail. Nothing too serious. After some expanded vocabulary with regard to the pain in my shoulder, I threw a rope up to ZK, who anchored me and hauled my pack back up to the trail.
Whilst I rested and got sorted, ZK headed up-trail to scout conditions. It was a “maybe” — we headed around this knoll and saw the last long arc toward the San Rafael saddle consisted of more of the same: the singletrack barely discernible through the snow, and beneath that first few inches, it was just a wide sheet of thick, hard, and unforgiving ice. Dammit all.
I know I sing ZK’s praises every so often and second only to the uber-hund’s, but again it’s trips like these where a man understands why he finds himself hiking with the same guy for close on 20 years. “Resident Science Officer,” yes. Former Army medic? Handy to have, absolutely. Ability to quote the top 1,302 films in cinematic history? One of his greatest assets — that sort of stuff is key to maintaining morale. But it’s when I come up with some crazy scheme or route, or when I drop into command mode and say we’re done, I concede defeat, or — in this case — we’d be stupid to continue, his response is pretty much always the same.
“I’m down for whatever, dude.”
So we made a 180 and headed back down the mountain. With my arm intermittently falling asleep and my shoulder sounding more like an icosahedron and socket than a ball and socket any time I raised it more than 45 degrees from vertical, we picked our way back down the steps we’d made earlier and back to McKinley Saddle. I consoled myself by stopping every so often to wield the new Fiskars I’d purchased specifically for this trip, clipping errant oak and manzanita where the snow had forced it across the trail. A warm-up for them.
At the saddle, I SPOTed a change-of-itinerary to the missus and upon finding the mobile had three bars here, made the necessary phone calls to arrange a ride back out that evening.
And so we spent the next few hours under intermittent gray cloud marching those nine beautiful miles back to Cachuma Saddle. Every few miles I’d question the decision to turn back, but as we watched San Rafael Mountain disappear within a dark mass of cloud and the wind began to pick up, I took some solace in knowing we were walking away from this, which in and of itself is a positive.
So yes, once again, I am hunkered down here in the dungeons of maptitude. Only this time, there’s a new file folder with notes, maps, and a thick label (as yet without a date) scribbled atop the tab.
And it says “REMATCH.”