Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Santa Cruz Mountains Fastpacking Adventure

Friday evening September 21st, me and my buddy Toshi set off on an adventure to travel to the ocean and back again from Rancho San Antonio.  We did it fastpacking style.  Fastpacking is like backpacking, except the goal is to gain as much distance as possible each day- which usually requires one to go with a very light pack with the bare essentials to get by on in the mountains.

Ready to begin our hike at the Rhus Ridge trailhead, Rancho San Antonio.
My goals for this trip were three fold:

  1. Test out my gear and skills to gain confidence in tackling greater challenges.
  2. Pile 36 miles on top of 36 miles on top of 36 miles of all day hiking to see how my body responds to it all.
  3. Have a ton of fun and take a lot of pictures.

View of silicon valley as the sun is setting.

Beautiful sunset at the top of Black Mountain.
The hiking was wonderful and the views with the evening colors was magnificent.  Everything looked very different from the time of day that I usually run these trails.

My first attempt at the PCT bear bag hanging method: success- no bears got my food.
The first night was very peaceful, Toshi and I were the only campers on top of Black Mountain and the weather was great.  I got to test out my food hanging skills and try all of my sleeping gear for the first time.  We even made ourselves some tea and had a little night running excursion to check out the different views of the lights of silicon valley- very surreal.  I didn't get much sleep this night because I am a light sleeper and there was a constant rustling in the bushes.  Also, at some point in the middle of the night what sounded like heavy footfall came right between Toshi and my sleeping spots and then went away.  At first I was thinking that it was some strange night hiker just passing through- but Toshi had a better explanation(he heard it too): it must have been a deer.  It was very strange.

View of Black Mountain from top of Table Mountain
The next day we woke bright and early 5:30 a.m.  Had everything packed up and ready to go by about 6:15.  Just ate snacks on the trail until we picked a spot to make breakfast.  Cooking stops served multiple purposes:

  • Cook a real meal
  • Set out wet stuff to dry in the sun
  • Get a nice break from the hike/chill out for a while
We usually had two cooking breaks during a single day.  They each lasted maybe 50 minutes or so.

Breakfast at Saratoga Gap.

First rock we saw at Castle Rock State Park.

Toshi showing us how brave he is.

Boulder hopping on top of the world.
Castle Rock State Park was more of a playground for us than a place to hike through, especially for Toshi as he got to astonish me with his rock climbing skills, just incredible.

Multi-talented, yes-that is an ultra-runner.

More daredevil stuff.

As we descended from Castle Rock to Big Basin State Park it was getting hot and we hit a tough patch in our forward progress.  Luckily having two people working together really helps motivate through these times and we still managed to have some fun!

Toshi insisted that he get to perch himself on this stump, whatever...

Toshi kept doing crazy stuff, and I told him I didn't even want to try because I have kids - in reality it was because we were less than 5 miles away from Big Basin Headquarters(where there was food galore) and I didn't want to waste any calories- I was tired.  But perhaps I have become a little more risk averse in my old age...

Big trees at Big Basin.
The Skyline to the Sea trail is a cool trail.  It goes from the Saratoga Gap(one of the first ridges you can see above Saratoga in silicon valley) all the way to the Ocean at Waddell Beach.  I have heard that several thousand volunteers knocked in out in one weekend back in the seventies.  It is a worthy challenge for those who seek adventure in the mountains.  While Toshi and I traversed this trail we crossed paths with other hikers including: father-son teams, couples, a bunch of girlfriends, a bunch of guys- all with the singular goal of crossing the trail either from the sea to the gap or more frequently from the gap to the ocean.  It is neat to share this energy.  The internet will tell you that it can take three days to do it, but that is a pretty leisurely pace.  When you say hi to the other hikers the invariable questions are:  where did you come from and when are you getting there.  When we told them what we were doing, they just gave us a blank stare (like the same stare that I get from my relatives back in Kansas when I tell them the two bedroom ranch that I rent is worth half a million dollars...)

Toshi told me they would give me superhuman strength and do some other stuff that I can't mention here.

Just an act-not tired at all actually.  Arrival at Big Basin Headquarters- food - yay.

Couldn't really make up our minds about what we wanted to drink, so we got one of each.
Big Basin Headquarters is a tired hikers oasis.  You likely have no idea what a welcome view all of those drink and food items are to someone who just covered 30 miles of up and down.

Very awkward picture of me filtering water from some hole in the ground that Toshi refused to take part in(no drinking- but he took a dip).
After Big Basin we did our last 5 mile push of the day to get to Sunset Backpacking camp.  We got there just as the sun was setting so we decided to go in search of some water to fill our bladders and soak our tired legs in.  This hole I found in the picture above is actually really deep, Toshi was able to soak himself up to his hips in the hole.  I think it did us some good.

Fastpacking on the cheap.  I think if accounting didn't work out for him he could have been a great engineer.  Turns out he got to combine both aptitudes in this exercise.
Who says fastpacking has to be expensive?  In the picture above Toshi shows us how to do it right: water floaty as an air mattress, borrow buddies sleeping bag, borrow wife's trekking poles, split a trash bag to use as a tarp.  Cost- nothing.  Or priceless, or something...

Sunset Camp was tough for me.  I didn't get any sleep hardly - maybe two hours.  The camp was full.  There were like twenty people snoring, all sounds bouncing around the redwood cathedral that we were taking shelter in.  I was comfortable but I just laid there - staring up at the redwoods and the stars - comfortable - mind racing - and could not sleep. Can't explain why.

So, at 4:30 a.m. I notice that Toshi is up and I ask him how he is doing.  He says that he is ready to go, so we go hunting in the dark for our food bag(which we hung in the dark the night before up a hill and through the brush from camp- sometimes it is hard to find the right branch to hang your food from).  And we are packed and ready to go by 5:10 a.m.  We then proceed to stumble down a precariously steep and technical trail in complete darkness until we reach the STTS(skyline to the sea) and then walk in the dark until we reach the beach.

Cool Trees as we near the beach.

Ocean - yay.

Me - not standing on my hands.

Toshi - standing on his hands.

Toshi insisted we write this in the sand.  He then proceeded to pick up the biggest stick he could find(tree branch- twice his size).  But then I showed him that you can do the same thing with a smaller stick.  He was not impressed.

Loaded Oatmeal - breakfast of champions: oatmeal, chia seeds, honey, raisins, almond butter.  Delish.

Toshi - still trying to prove his big stick hypothesis, eating curry for breakfast.  Ha, we will see how that works out for him.

Sun coming up at the beach.
On the way back up the trail(new destination - Portola State Park where Toshi's wife Judy will pick him up at the end of the day), we stop by Berry Creek Falls so that we can get a picture.  We went by it in darkness on the way to the beach, so all we could do was hear it...

Berry Creek Falls.

Toshi in a hollow tree -  on the Hollow Tree Trail.  This was right after he crashed down the hill only to have the earth give way beneath him so he goes rolling down into the tree and the tree just swallows him up - minor cuts and abrasions but nothing that required me to get out my handy-dandy med kit.


Thanks Judy!  for letting me borrow your husband for the weekend.

Portola State Park: where Toshi gets picked up.  He had to go back to work on Monday.

It was a downer to watch Toshi leave because we were having so much fun, but I also welcomed the solitude and challenge that the solo part of my trip was going to bring.  After he left, I did an out an back on the Pomponio Trail to get my mileage for the day and then headed up to Slate Creek camp.  This is when the tiredness really hit.  I felt like a zombie hiking up to the camp.  I arrived just as the sun was setting and picked my camping spot(I was the only hiker in camp- and therefore the only person for miles) and then I picked my tree to hang the food.  Three successful food hangings, I think I am getting the hang of it.  I felt like passing out at any moment, so I just went to sleep. It was 8 p.m. I woke up at 5 - 9 hours of sleep baby! yeah!  I woke up at 5 staring up at the redwoods and stars for half an hour and figured out that that was that, so I got up, packed up, and started hiking.

Camping setup at Slate Creek Campgrounds.

Peter's Creek in the pre-dawn light.  I filtered water from here- but filtering was probably totally unnecessary.
I did the Peter's Creek loop from Slate Creek.  It is one of the most beautiful places in the Santa Cruz Mountains and I got to check it out all by myself in the pre-dawn light and it was magical.  I was going to be drinking water from this creek for the next five hours of hiking.

Back at Slate Creek Campgrounds- pretty place to sleep.
After I did the loop I arrived back at Slate Creek just as the sun was filtering through the trees.  Yep - no wonder I slept good.

Expansive views from Saratoga Long Ridge Open Space Preserve.
I wondered how my body would feel by this point in the trip, about 90 miles in with not enough sleep.  I think the 9 hours of sleep I got the night before did wonders and I felt grate on this day and just soaked it all in.  Muscle fatigue was not bad.

Horseshoe Lake.
My family loves this hike. We usually go from Horseshoe Lake to Alpine Pond and back, a very scenic 3 miler that is doable for any family.

Some elevenses at Alpine Pond. 

Ancient Oaks Trail.

Borel Hill.
It was a warm day and the movement was slow but constant.  The views on this day's hike totally inspired me on.

Black Mountain from Borel Hill.

I made it back to Rancho San Antonio main parking area at 5:40 p.m. where the stupid pay phone swallowed my quarters when I tried to give Joanne a call to come pick me up(I didn't want to bring a cellphone because of the weight - and I knew it would be useless up in the hills).  A kind lady let me use her cell phone.  Anyways, I had a blast.

Boring Details:

Gear Review:

  • Olympus T-320 camera: Grade: A.  Did it's job and didn't break.
  • SOG Flash I Knife: Grade: A.  Sharp and light.
  • Jetboil Sol Stove: Grade: A-.  It was easy to use, easy to pack, and boiled water insanely fast.  But with the gas, it ended up being quite heavy.  Not quite considered ultra-light.  There are lighter options.  I brought an extra 100 gram gas canister because I didn't know/trust how long it was going to last.  I was pleasantly surprised when one 100 gram canister cooked all of our meals for 3 days.  I think about 12 boilings in all, and I don't think it is done.
  • Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spoon: A+.  While not a titanium spork- which is obviously the crem-de-la-crem of ultra-light eating utensils, as long as you can recite: "This spoon is made from aircraft-grade 7057-T6 aluminum" to your camp-mates you will get the cred.  Toshi was really impressed.  Oh, and it is good for eating food out of those freeze-dried food packages.
  • REI Minimalist Bivy: B-.  I didn't really get to test it out as there was basically no precipitation or noticeable moisture to protect my sleeping bag from, so this isn't fair.  But it did leave the foot of my sleeping back wet from condensation(likely because that is the area that is farthest away form the air hole.  I am tempted to evaluate other options such as ultra light tarp camps that I can use my hiking poles as the structure- for 9 more ounces I can have a real tent!
  • Inertia X-Lite sleeping pad: Grade: C+.  It did it's job, which was to pad 3/4 of my body- the important 3/4.  But my sore heals kept me thinking that maybe another 2-3 ounces might be worth it to get a full pad...
  • Zissou Lite Nautical Long Sleeping Bag: A. It was great.  I love it.
  • Gossamer Gear Gorilla Pack:  B+.  Everything packed nice, there was room, it was light, it was pretty comfy, it had pockets in all the right places.  The only thing that I wonder about is if they make a pack like this that doesn't bounce when you run.  The only way I could get this thing to stay close to my body on the run was to sinch down the shoulder straps all the way which put all of the pack weight on my shoulders- not nice when you want most of it on your hips- which is what the nice big hip belt is for.  But for the 60% of the time that you are hiking, it is heaven, you just deal with the running part I guess...
  • MSR Hyperflow water filter: A.  It worked great for two people, didn't take too long, was light.  I backwashed it twice to keep the filter flowing nice, and it was easy.
  • Target Bags: F.  Epic Fail.  I thought I could just use left-over grocery bags as stuff sacks.  I was wrong.  They pretty much all disintegrated by the end of the trip.
  • Headlamp:  A.  I forgot which brand it was.  I have had it for a while, but it is light and cheap and the power lasts forever.  This comes at a cost of brightness(lumens), but I didn't need much so it did it's job.
  • Adventure Medical Kit UltraLight: A.  Only used it twice.  Once I used some of the tape to jerry-rig my backpack, and once on the fourth day when I woke up at Slate Creek I decided to cover my sore heels with some moleskin.  Don't know if it helped- but I didn't get any blisters!
  • Black Diamond Ultra Distance Hiking Poles: A+.  This was my first time using hiking poles, and I was suspicious of what exactly they were supposed to do for me.  I thought they were for old people or something.  Turns out I was very wrong.  There is a reason pretty much all of the europeans use hiking poles at UTMB(long race through the alps).  The poles made ascending mountains easy!  I don't know why God didn't design extendable hiking poles into the ends of our arms, they are awesome.  And the Ultra Distance poles lived up to the billing as an incredible light weight, well crafted pole.  Every time I gaze at my ultra distance poles I get a warm and fuzzy feeling- yes, they are that good.


  • GU: B.  If I was going to sacrifice a calorie source, it would be gu, but it is handy and is pretty much considered the jet fuel for when you need it- the fastest way to get energy to your system.
  • Cliff Bars: B+.  Marginally more appealing to me than GU, but very handy.
  • Trail Mix: A-.  My wife prepared a home-made concoction of various nuts and dried fruits that we get through our organic co-op.  It was yummy.
  • Jerky: A.  King of Trail Food.  These kind of trips actually make me feel not guilty about splurging on it either, but man is it expensive...
  • Mountain House Freeze Dried Beef Stew: C.  Dog Food.  Well, glorified dog food.  It does give you something to look forward to though when you want something that seems like a real meal.
  • AlpineAire Foods Pepper Steak w/Rice: B.  Still Dog Food, but much better dog food.  I like AlpineAire better than Mountain House.
  • AlpineAire Foods Western Tamale Pie: B. Same as above.
  • Loaded Oatmeal: A.  I like it, but I think I will need to mix it up next time, I found that putting some variety into the lineup made me look forward to each meal that much more, because there was some curiosity as to what the next thing would taste like.  I had oatmeal every morning, bleh.


  • We woke up every morning and hit the trail right away to get the systems warmed up.  Then at an opportune time we would set up for breakfast cook break.
  • I knew all of the trails and water spots going in, so we optimized fill up spots- it would be hard to do this without some intelligence of the terrain that you were facing.
  • We ran probably 40% of the time.  And running here is a relative term, it was faster than walking.  I found that running with that much weight on your back required you to chop up your stride a bit, so it slows you down some.
  • We hiked most all of the uphills, and ran most of the downhills, the in-betweens were left up to the situation, how we were feeling, etc.
  • Before the sun came up it was mostly just walking.  Didn't want to risk trippage, and we were still waking up.
  • My pack weight was about 23 lbs: 11.5 pack+gear, and 11.5 water+food.  I can get rid of a couple of gear items to make it a little lighter: extra gas cannister, extra headlamp(just bring batteries instead).  I brought 10000 calories, or about 3500 a day.  This was about right and at the ultra-light standard of 100 calories per ounce of food, was about 6.5 lbs.  I ate basically everything.
  • We usually got into camp right about as the sun was setting, this was not necessary by plan, but it is how it turned out.  Sometimes that meant doing a lot of tasks in the dark, but that was ok.
  • We could cover about 10 miles of mountainous terrain(up and down, technical trail) in about 3 hours including a short water filtering stop and some picture taking stops.  The time splits which are linked below include things such as cook breaks too, which suck up a lot of time, but were instrumental in allowing us to keep a good pace for while we were actually moving.
  • Link to pace chart: 


  1. Very fun read!

    Your writing style reminds me very much of Joanne's. You two must be married.

    Would the pay phone not allow you to make a collect call? It's listed as an option...

  2. Oh man! I just got to re-live the adventures we had. Elevenses and Austrian folk songs and all! Thank you so much. You pretty much saved my life by stopping me from doing more stupid stuff. And being organized. I couldn't have asked for anyone better to go on my first fastpacking trip! Glad you got to sleep well on the third night. You looked super tired when I left. I can't wait for more adventures to come!
    Oh, you might want to start washing your legs with Technu. Poison oak rash just started to emerge.

  3. Sounds incredible. What an adventure! I was just about to say that I would love to join you guys on a trip like that if you ever do another one... until I saw the above post from Toshi about posion oak emegence. Nevermind. I'll just stick to my high-altitude alpine races like TRT and The Bear where posion oak can't grow above 5K. LOL.

  4. So cool! I like all of the pics! Can't believe all of your stuff fit into that little backpack!

  5. Actually Jenny, you have no idea. Other stuff that fit in there also: extra shirt, socks, long sleeves, jacket, towel, rope, tp, maps/permits, id/creditcard/cash/coin, beanie, extra target bags.

  6. $14???? That's insane. I might have braved asking a kind-looking stranger, too, in that case.

  7. Dude, u are inspiring! That sounds like it was fun.... some day ill do that in a week....

    Thank you for sharing. Now i can live vicariously through you!

  8. Dude. That's what I'm talking about! Sounds like an epic little adventure you had there! If I could keep up with you speedsters, I'd be interested to join you! Or I could lead a slower group and just sleep less! Im really glad to started a blog. Its a great way of sharing your adventures with your friends and your kids someday! Maybe you'll even inspire a few people to take up running or little adventures like this one. I still think you need to write a blog about that "misadventure" you had taking a wrong turn and how you climbed out of that pit! Good stuff!

  9. What an adventure, and so close from home. We are blessed to live in this Bay area! Fast packing for 3 days sounds so much more difficult than covering that distance in one shot. Well, you still have to carry your aid stations.

    Thanks for all the details, very informative!

  10. Sounds enjoyable. ....other than the "fast" part...fast is not really for me, but the rest sounds awesome.