Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ventana Thru-hike Fastpacking 2015

California's central coast has some wild and rugged land.  One might wonder why there is such a divide between NorCal and SoCal as the locals like to identify themselves.  There is definitely a geographical divide with not much in-between.  Along the coast this divide can be easily identified as the Big Sur region.  From wikipedia:

Big Sur is a sparsely populated region of the Central Coast of California where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean

The Los Padres National Forest encompasses much of the region.  Within this forest is the Federally designated wilderness called Ventana.  Again from wikipedia:

The topography of the Ventana Wilderness is characterized by steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges separating V-shaped youthful valleys. Most streams fall rapidly through narrow, vertical-walled canyons over bedrock or a veneer of boulders. Waterfalls, deep pools and thermal springs are found along major streams. Elevations range from 600 feet (180 m), where the Big Sur River leaves the Wilderness, to about 5,750 feet (1,750 m) at the wilderness boundary near Junipero Serra Peak.

Toshi (along with several sorry hiking partners) had been doing various aesthetic routes in the area for the last couple of years and came up with a plan of "Thru-hiking" the Ventana wilderness.  For a look at what this means:

North to South. Just shy of 100 miles.
The length of the hike wasn't the most intimidating aspect.  Not even the steep topography was too scary.  The thing with this hike was that there weren't necessarily real "trails" that connected the two points on the picture above.  Back during the depression when the government was looking for something, anything, for people to work on - they decided that we should have some nice hiking trails traversing the wilderness, so the CCC got to work.  They built an extensive trail system, but without the necessary maintenance, over the years the forest has reclaimed much of the progress made those many years ago.  Maps still show those trails and the burden has fallen on the hikers to report and keep a log of the various stages of disrepair of the trails and share the information with other hikers for planning purposes.  There were some questionable stretches of "trail" that Toshi had to link together in order to make this hike possible.  

We started at 5 a.m. from Botchers Gap and went south.  This is us three at the top of devil's peak right when we were seeing the first signs of the sun coming up. 

A view of Pico Blanco - the Esselen Native Americans that lived here believed that all life originated at this rock.

Beautiful Sunrise and a view of Ventana Kandlbinder, Double-Cone, and "the notch" from the North.  We will see this same series from the south later on...

Really, you don't have to filter...  Yeah Toshi, whatever.

Will the real Ventana please stand up?


Catching our breaths on the bushwhack down the Puerto Suelo "trail"

Definitely not moving fast.  But it's kinda fun - when the prickly things aren't getting you.

First little sit-down for the day - getting ready to cross the carmel river.

We just got done fighting a "brushy" climb until we reached this beautiful open valley.

20 miles in - this is the first other person we see.  I asked if I could get her picture - and Sachin made sure to let her know that "we are friendly people"

So we are climbing up towards the black cone trail and Toshi lets us know of his desire to "tag" south ventana cone.  Whatever - lets see what happens.  It starts out ok when we leave the trail but got brushy pretty quick.  This is a view as we neared the top.

I thought I knew what bushwhacking was - but pushing through the wall of seemingly impenetrable shrubbery zapped much of my resolve.  And Sachin was leading the way!

Toshi got to sign the register.  I hope he was happy.  I sat down and enjoyed the view.

Sachin and I climbed a rock and got some sweet vistas.

After we descended off of South Cone and pushed our way through some more chaparral, we found the black cone trail.  The views were quite stunning from up there, but the trail was annoying.  You would have several hundred feet of clear sailing, getting into a groove, and then bam - you are ducking through some brush, getting pocked by various wooden nubs, scratched to heck.  It was what it was and I knew it would get better.  Then as the sun began to set and we started negotiating among ourselves of where we were going to camp that night - the brush really started hemming us in.  I had folded up my trekking poles - them becoming quite useless at that stage -  and stashed them in my side pocket.  I was realizing that my pack setup was not ideal for all of this bushwhacking.  The pockets were snagging on the bushes, the poles would snag as well.  I kept looking back to make sure the poles didn't get ripped out of my pack, just like my hat kept getting ripped off and I would have to retrieve it from the bushes.  The bushes seemed to be slowing me down more than Sachin and Toshi too - possibly because they were better equipped, were more used to bushwhacking in Ventana, or because they have a smaller cross-sectional area.  I tried to blame my pathetic pace on my vertical endowment - Sachin asked me what the heck I just said and Toshi explained that it was because I was tall.  Anyways, we stumbled into Strawberry camp, dazed and exhausted.  Sachin and I had to promise Toshi that we would call it a night here and make more time during the next night because we were expected to be on smooth-sailing fire roads - much easier to traverse at night than soul-sapping brush monsters like the black cone trail.

First night at Strawberry campground.

Toshi - off by himself, attempting to master his satellite communications device.
Ticks were an issue.  I had to remove one off of Sachin's back and a couple from my thigh.  These were the ticks that "made" it.  Most of the time you can just brush them off as you see them, but when you are trying to cover ground fast, sometimes you aren't as diligent as you should be about scanning for the horrible little creatures.

The next morning we started off with what seemed like a continuation of the black cone trail.  And it was still dark.  BUT! But, as the sun came up, the trail cleared up, we hit a downhill with views forever and everyone was happy again.



Bamboo.  Happy.


Only nice thing that happened for the next two or three hours.
The descent into Indian Valley was wonderful.  But then we attempted to find the Lost Valley trail.  Toshi asks "where is the trail?"  Well, the map says straight through the valley, follow the stream.  Hmmm, back to the bushwhacking.  There was this nice waterfall pictured above, but the rest of this part of our trip I would like to forget.  It was quite humbling.  We fought our way deep into the bushes before I finally had enough.  I sat down and tried to reason with Toshi.  At this pace we will never make it out of this valley.  We had various versions of maps - Sachin had a set of maps loaded on his GPS device, I on mine, and Toshi on his.  And then Toshi had his own set of paper maps as well. Every map showed stuff a little bit different - that should have been our first clue that this was going to be tough.  I proposed that we backtrack back to Indian Valley camp and head up the other ridge to Marble Peak and take the dirt ridge road south.  After convincing Toshi that this wasn't "cheating" he seemed concede to this plan of action.  The thing was that we still had to backtrack.  Meaning another hour of bushwhacking and getting ripped up by some thorny shrubberies that I had never encountered before - they were sort of like rose bushes, but without anything nice about them.

The dirt road was literally a breath of fresh air.  We had views of the ocean on the right and views of the wilderness on the left.

We weren't the only ones that preferred to travel by road.  These are the tracks of a rather large cat.  There were also tracks of a couple of smaller ones, cubs I suppose.  These tracks persisted for several miles.

elevensees.  Cheetos and Jerky - pure heaven.  A decent view too.

Someone else appreciates it up here as well.  A very strategically placed hammock has sweeping views of the ocean and wilderness in the shade of some old oaks.

I really did not expect to come across a stream up on the ridge.  I guess the storm from the weekend prior really helped out on the water sources.

The dirt road was well maintained.  Until it wasn't.  For several miles we were pushing through people high chaparral that had taken over the road, but then, almost inexplicably, we came upon this heavenly stretch.

The following are views of the sunset as we near in on the summit of Cone Peak.

As Sachin and I were climbing the last several hundred feet to the summit (while Toshi went off to "scramble" to the top) I let him know about my thoughts of camping out at the top and bailing out to Limkiln State beach in the morning.  I had been doing the math in my head and figured we were about five hours behind schedule with the several "adventures" that we had had already and knew what had to be done to finish the route as planned (that is if the last 30-40 miles didn't have any more surprises - which I was almost 100% confident we were going to run into something else). To make up for those 5 hours, that means hike through most of the night, and bivy up for maybe 2-3 hrs and then death march it in.  The legs were ok, the body was willing, but I was just too mentally beat up at that point to wrap my mind around the challenge and decided to call it a day.  At this point, I had actual boils on my legs from the poison oak reaction that was coming on en force (never had boils before - Toshi had to tell me it was a PO reaction), was kind of beat up from the bushes, and pissed off about my lost trekking pole.  I just had too many excuses to quit, and this was the most logical place to bail.  When I reiterated my plan to bail with Sachin and Toshi while we were cooking dinner at the fire tower on top of the summit - they seemed really understanding and didn't try to push me into continuing.

I bid them farewell on their journey and watched them march off into the darkness.  I started hunting around for a nice place to lay my bivy down.  Just then I realized that the wind might be an issue that night.  I kept circling the tower to look for a decent place to bivy up for the night, but could not make up my mind because about every spot had some downsides.  It was right about then that I started to feel sorry for myself and lonely.  I got a sudden urge to race down the hill to try and catch Sachin and Toshi and finish this thing with them, but knew it was too late.  I ended up deciding to sleep on the tower right where we picked to eat dinner.  Strangely, as I tried to fall asleep, I kept feeling little crawlies on me.  I would get my light, investigate, and find a tick crawling to it's destination.  I took it off and squished it.  This happened three times before I finally felt like I had got them all and got to sleep.  They weren't getting on me from the tower or anything, they had got on my clothes at sometime during the day and were able to make it onto my body at some point before I got into the sleeping bag.  It was not a restful night of sleep.

The next morning

Descending into the clouds.

View back up to Cone Peak.

My hat and shirt were destroyed from the bushwhacking, and that is me with a bloody nose.  This picture was taken very near where my brother fell down the mountain last year - this picture has a pretty true representation of the steepness.

Into the clouds.

almost there.

Looking down at highway 1.

Limkiln State beach.  Made it!
The plan was that I would wait at Limkiln until Judy (Toshi's wife) came by after picking up Toshi and Sachin from Ragged Point.  I got to the beach by 11 a.m. and found a nice spot to sit and watch the waves.  I continued to eat the rest of my food and watch a pod of dolphins swim by.  It was pretty nice, except a little cold from the overcast.  The funny thing is I knew how warm and sunny it was just a thousand feet up the hill.  But this is what I had.  It was also fun to do some people watching as it was presidents day weekend and a bunch of people were out visiting on Monday.  Eventually I got bored and made up a game where I pretended that the beach sand was lava and I had to jump across on the rocks and scramble the cliffs to get from one side to the other.  Pretty fun and kept me warm.

Toshi and Sachin almost made it to Ragged Point.  They had issues finding the final trail connection that they needed to finish the hike and Sachin did the math and had to talk Toshi into bailing to highway 1 so as not to keep everyone waiting for them.  Once the decision was made, Toshi sent a message to his wife of the new pickup location and they started heading back.  At some point Toshi discovered the trail that they needed and tried to reconsider the situation.  In the end they decided to keep to the new plan to be nice to us who were waiting.  They made it about 96 miles and completed the route as described in the first picture on this post - they had about five more miles to do it as Toshi had originally envisioned the trip - I'm sure he will be back for redemption at some point.  They came by Limkiln at about 7 maybe?  We then endured a harrowing drive up highway 1 (somehow we avoided puking our guts out) back to Botchers Gap.  Sachin and I found a Inn-N-Out and then continued to pig out on greasy, delicious food.  I ate two double-doubles animal style, fries and a shake without flinching - I wasn't even that full.  And so concludes another adventure exploring the wilds of California!

Video Montage:


  1. Vertical endowment, "happy" pictures, lol. Balanced with ticks, bushwhacking, and the like. Wow on the bloody nose pic showcasing the steepness near where Josh fell--crazy! Good post. I feel like with reading all three of your accounts and seeing three sets of pictures, I got the "full picture" as they say. Or of what you guys decided to share, anyway. Tough hike in parts for sure; pretty views in others.

  2. Thanks for posting the report! Again, thank you for joining the trip... we would never have made it as far as we did if you didn't intervene at Lost Valley Trail. Off topic, but I wonder why you get bloody nose during backpacking trips.

    1. Only happens on trips with weirdos.

  3. Nice trip report! I'll have to put this one on my list.

    1. Thanks Karen. Although I meant this report more as a warning than an invitation - but to each their own... You have an awesome job.

  4. I will never go out into the wilderness again after reading this report. Danger lurks at every corner: blistering poison oak, blood-thirty ticks, savage strawberry bushes. I may never even go out into my front yard to mow the lawn again.

    1. Good idea John - although treadmill CR's are probably pretty stout - Wardian ran a 3:04 50k - beat that!