Riddle Me This

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.

Hells Half-Acre

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.

Upward and Onward

Open Road

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.

Checking In

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.”

A few months later, victory was ours. See here and here for the account.


9 responses to “Riddle Me This”

  1. Good to hear that you were not seriously hurt in the fall. If nothing else, it reminds me, and maybe others who sometimes backpack solo, why it can be best to turn around and go back. I did just that in March 1995 about where you did for the same reason. It could be an easy slip and very long slide down off that section of trail. Good luck getting back out there again real soon.

  2. Cheers Dan. I expect to still make this weekend’s brief sojourn into the Chumash Wilderness as planned, shoulder (and snow!) willing.

  3. Craig
    About 25 years ago my girlfriend and I hiked into Mission Pines Spring.It is a very nice and remote spot. We took the same route you took but later in the spring- so no snow. She went in solo a few years later and a lion jumped her little cattle dog. She beat it off with her backpack and saved the dog but had to turn around and carry the dog out. She made it back late at night but got the dog to a vet the next morning and the little guy lived out a very long life! Have you heard if the Zaca fire burned Mission Pine Basin?

  4. Well, you didn’t quite get the epic you had in mind for this trip, but it sounds like you still had plenty of excitement! Glad you guys played it safe and chose to turn back rather than continue to push your luck with that kind of exposure to a serious fall. It’s hard to accept that we still have winter conditions in the high backcountry when the front country is so spring-like.

    I hate carrying unecessary weight but a pair of microspikes would probably be a good investment for these trips with some potential for snow/ice. I’ve been thinking about picking up a pair myself.

    Glad Lily wasn’t along for this hike! Her and la puma would have made for quite a stressful encounter.

    1. N, I shudder to think what would have gone down if Canis selectivhearingis had been on that trail. A gaggle of mobile burger is one thing, but …

  5. @Hank, that takes some moxie to fight off a cat, all props to the woman! And yes, the Zaca fire torched the Mission Pine Ridge. You can check out the photos from a group of VWRs who went up there a few months later at https://picasaweb.google.com/beemancron/2007MissionPinesFallCanyonTrail#

  6. bardley Avatar

    bummer to plan and execute and get turned back, but the mountain will always be there for your rematch.
    whadda ya mean we can’t summit, i wanna, we’re supposed to!
    we came all this way.
    hoping the shoulder isn’t damaged.

  7. Glad every thing turned out ok. Sorry to hear about your shoulder. How do you keep the meat from spoiling on a long trip like that? Pack it in snow over night? And how do you keep your dogs from going after snakes? I usually don’t see a snake on the trail until right before I’m about to step on it.

    @Hank, Glad your friend was able to beat off that lion, sounds like a happy ending for all involved 😉

    1. EP, the dogs tend to ignore the snakes, and when buzzed back off in haste. Masha (the uber-hund) has the most prey drive, but not for snakes. Even Lilly — who was a complete pill a few weekends ago heading up McPherson Peak, harassing some cattle — fears the buzz of a rattler.

      As for the meat, it’s frozen and double-bagged in heavy-duty Ziploc freezer bags. Good for 3-4 days out (beef liver freezes really hard and is a good option, too). After about the fourth day (sooner if the weather’s warm), it’s dry kibble mixed with pouched fish.

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