“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The opening line from Tale of Two Cities aptly summed up my latest backpacking trip last May. This was one of the more last-minute backpacking trips that I’ve been on, despite knowing about it for about a month prior. A couple of days before I was a guest speaker at an elementary school, presenting about marine biology and doing dissections. Prior to that, I was busy doing… something. I only packed my bag the day before, and luckily didn’t need to get anything.
This was a five day trip in Los Padres, a loop past Indians. After some debate, I decided to go for light-weight versus my more comfortable gear. After busting out my Flash 52, I weighed in at about 24 lbs. Not bad for last-minute packing. Of course, it helped that I was sharing a tent. Haha!
We met up at the store bright and early Tuesday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Okay, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after we got our Starbucks coffee and waited inside the store where it was warm. It was really cold that morning, and as we were expecting warm weather in Ventanna and didn’t have all of our warm layers on. After deliberating on rides and waited for our stragglers to join us, we were on our way, myself as one of the drivers.
We made it to the trail head in the early afternoon, and, after setting up a shuttle system, hoisted our packs. The day started across a large, meadow at the base of the mountains. It was warm, but not excruciatingly hot, and our biggest concern were ticks. I was at the front of the pack with a couple of my friends, and we were taking our time and enjoying the scenery. Before long our trail went from flat to UP. My friend, also a fast hiker, is very sensitive to elevation changes, so I hiked up ahead with her, stopping now and again to acclimate, but we made pretty steady progress. Many of the people in our group were also in the Yosemite party, and so I was expecting to be about an hour ahead again. I was surprised, and pleased, that this was not the case. Either they have begun hiking faster, or I hike slower when with a hiking buddy.
The terrain that day was dynamic, and when we reached the top of the ridge, breathtaking. The landscape stretched out in front of us, interspersed with huge rock formations. Of course, several of these rock formations were close to the trail and, for the good of the group, I felt it was my duty to climb these formations so that I could get pictures.
A couple of hours into the trek the temperatures began to climb. For the first time in a very long time, I actually hiked in shorts. Once we made it to the top of the ridge, the trail suddenly disappeared into the chaparral, leaving us no choice but to bushwack our way through, following the trail tape left by hikers before us. It was hot and tiring, and I was soon covered in pollen… BUT IT WAS SO MUCH FUN! It is just so satisfying! My legs were completely scratched up by the time I got to a clearing large enough to reattach the legs of my pants.
The trail serpentine across the top of the ridge. The chaparral was thickest on the west side of the ridge, but the poison oak was very dense on the east side. There were times where we were tip-toeing between bushes of poison oak, and we stopped calling out poison oak sightings, and became excited when the foliage contained plants that were not poison oak.
The end of the day found us nestled between two ridges in a small valley. The trail had become even harder to locate than before, and we found it by listening for running water. We knew that our camp would be near a water source. I’ve followed more established game trails than our trail! After some trial and error, we finally came across our camp. The camp was small, especially for our 13-person party, but there were enough nooks and crannies for us to set up our tents. There was a large rock in the center of the camp site, which provided a good view and had a nice seat at the top.
As luck would have it (or at least my luck), my camera decided at this point that it would not take any more pictures. It had been on the fritz for a while (it’s an old camera), but it had taken its last picture. The rest of the pictures in this post were taken by my friends.
The water supply we were promised was a small stream at the bottom of a hill. A small waterfall tumbled down some rocks and fed into the stream that led us to the camp site. It was a fairly deep crevice, and the hoses from our filters couldn’t reach the bottom. In order to filter water, one had to climb down into the rocks and filter from the small pool beneath the waterfall. I volunteered to be the guinea pig, and by the end was completely soaked. It felt really good, though, and washed the pollen from my clothes.
The main downside to the campsite were the bugs. Bug spray, even 100% Deet, only does so much, and we were completely swarmed by them, and we began our first of our extensive collection of bug bites. The only way to get away from the bugs was to hide inside our tents. My tent buddy and I soon developed a good system of getting in and out of the tent while letting in the fewest amount of bugs as possible.
After our long hike, we all went to bed early.
The next day I woke up feeling miserable. My nose was stuffy, and my neck was sore. I couldn’t think straight, and my head felt foggy. I was really tired because I kept waking up in the night. I packed my bag up, and curled up on a rock. My friend gave me some anti-histamine, which helped a little bit, but soon wore off. I was pretty sure that my allergies were acting up due to the pollen the day before.
Due to form, I was with the first group to leave. I wanted to get moving, hoping that my allergies would start to get better once I climbed out of the valley. My buddy from the day before and I were hiking buddies again, joined by my friend with her dog. We began on an uphill, climbing out of the campsite and through the woods. The trail was narrow, but it wasn’t the constant bushwacking from the day before. We kept a fairy constant pace, stopping momentarily where we had shade. It was hotter than it was the day before, and the sun sapped me of my energy. The whole day I had to breath through my mouth, and it was all I could do just to keep going. I think that one of the only reasons I made it through that day was due to Jelly Belly Sport Beans and Cliff Shots. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, pacing myself by reciting The Jaberwocky under my breath.
The views were incredible, especially once we “crowned” the ridge of the day. Los Padres forest stretched out in front of us, and in the far distance we could see the ocean, with a slight marine layer to outline it. We allowed ourselves a bit of a longer break here, enjoying the view and the breeze that swept up across the trees. But, not wanting to break our pace, we quickly hit the trail again.
Much of the trail was downhill from the ridge, and while the trail was still narrow, it was not as overgrown as before. The trail oscillated a bit, but we did not have the extremes from earlier in the trip. We kept a pretty steady pace, stopping momentarily in the shade to cool off. As per planned, we stopped at the trail junction to rendezvous with the rest of our party. We were pretty far ahead of the others, so we lounged on the trail under the shade, propped by our bags. By this time I was feeling miserable again, so I dozed a little bit, interspersed by munching on trail mix.
After our whole group rejoined us, we traveled together to the campsite. The plan originally was to make camp, and then summit a peak, but I wasn’t feeling up to it, so I opted to stay with the group in camp. We pitched our tent, and then I made my way to the tiny trickle of water coming from a rock to filter our water. Gotta say, my MSR Hyperflow performed beautifully here. Re hydrated, I crashed for several hours.
While I still felt bad, I didn’t feel as bad as before. I lounged about camp with my friends as we waited for our summiters to return. There was a fire pit as, conveniently, we had a fire permit, so after dinner we enjoyed the fire, which helped keep the mosquitoes at bay. I stayed awake until the summiters came back, several hours later, and then returned to the tent to crash.
If at all possible, I felt worse the next day. I felt miserable just sitting around, so I decided to head off with the early crew. If I was going to feel bad either way, I figured that I should feel bad moving so that I didn’t hold people up. The trails were not well maintained, but that was to be expected. I slowed down a lot that day, but found a pretty good rhythm that I stuck with. We were descending from the ridge, so most of it was downhill, fortunately. The poison oak had been pretty thick throughout the trip, but it was rabid on the third day. We had to maneuver through trees of the stuff, much of which was intertwined with large manzanita and ceanothus bushes. The first couple of miles the trail was encased in a “tube” of shrubbery, reminiscent of a plant cave. When we emerged from the cave, we serpentined down the face of the ridge. It was very rocky at parts, and we had to be careful of our footing. Poor Nina’s paws did not appreciate the hard, sharp, hot rocks, and was carried down most of it.
Upon finishing the steep descent, the trail began to level out a bit and we found ourselves back in a forest. The trail followed a stream, creating a much cooler micro-climate. I began to get very tired at this point. I grew careless and tripped over a rock, landing in a large poison oak bush! At the first opportunity, when we stopped for lunch, I jumped into the stream and scrubbed, hoping for the best. The cold water and food in my system was a much-needed pick-me-up, and I gained a second wind. I picked my pace up a bit, but not by much. Several of my friends that had been hiking further up ahead also began to hang back with me, so we all kept each other going.
We reached our campsite in good time, but decided to hike out early. We only had a couple of miles left to go, and there was a very attractive swimming hole at the end of the trail….
While we didn’t have far to go, the last couple of miles were through a canyon with very little cover. Later I found that we had been hiking in the 90′s under direct sun. Four of us grouped together, checking in that we all had enough water and electrolytes. We would stop whenever there was shade, recouping and cooling ourselves as best we could. The trail had worn away at parts, the most notable of which was on a curve that lay flush against the canyon wall. Half the trail had worn away, and what was left was rather unstable.
The sun had its toll on us all, and I was very glad that I decided on filling my spare bottle with electrolytes. One of my friends seemed to feel it worse than the rest of us. She began hanging back, and had grown very quiet. We were all very pleased when the trail crossed the nice, cold stream. We shed our bags and cooled down while we waited for the rest of the group to catch up to us.
The rest of the trail was shaded, and we made good time reaching the parking lot. Before heading to the swimming hole I drove the other drivers to their cars so that we could have all the vehicles at the trail head. My friend who wasn’t doing too well decided to tag along with us. I had started to grow pretty worried about her. She was very pale, and had trouble lifting her bag. She seemed to just collapse in the car. I also wasn’t feeling well, though the AC had given me a burst of energy. After dropping off the drivers, we decided to skip swimming and just drive home.
It turned out to be a good thing that we did, too. My friend was suffering from very bad heat stroke, and her symptoms were a lot worse than she let on. She was almost taken to the emergency room that night. I also wasn’t suffering allergies, but had caught a very nasty bug that kept me in bed for four days.
Despite being miserable for most of it, I had a lot of fun on the trip, and I would love to go back so that I could fully appreciate it. I really enjoy technical, challenging trails, and this was definitely one of those.
If I were to leave off with anything, it would be the importance of communicating with your backpacking buddies. It is incredibly important that people know how you are feeling, so that we can make accommodations if needed. Furthermore, the back country is not the place to let your pride or stubbornness get the better of you. Let people help you and know your limitations.