Saturday, December 3, 2011

First Long Hike Complete

Climbing Mount Whitney

20111119_082459_SantiagoPeakThat’s right! Christopher T. and I hiked to the top of Santiago Peak, the highest mountain in Orange County at 5,687 ft.  on November 19, 2011. 

This was the first of three big hikes before Mount Whitney in the Summer of 2012.  What follows is a retelling of our day, some of our challenges, and some very intriguing discoveries and folks we met on the trail. 

Packing
Knowing that we’d have an early start in the morning, I packed the car with all of the equipment and necessities the night before.  That  wasn’t a small task.

I had the usual material based on the Equipment Check we’d already created.  I excluded a few items though.  I knew I didn’t have to worry about carrying a Wag Bag (toilet bag), given I already had the similar bags for Jiggy, my American Bull Dog hiker accompanying me on all of the hikes.  I was very thankful later in the day that I had all that I did.  More on that later.

20111119_093633_SantiagoPeakAside from the day pack I had to carry, I also had to get Jiggy’s pack ready. He carries part of his own water, about 1 Liter, and all of his food, 2 cups of no-filler, high-protein kibble.  I also had to get the rest of his equipment.  Don’t worry, he has no boots or hat, but I needed his leash and the car seat-belt (yeah, you read that right) and seat cover.  Jiggy has a sensitive stomach.  Even after a year of living and driving with us, he still gets nervous and motion sickness in the car.  I didn’t want a big mess in the car in case that happened.

With both Jiggy’s and my pack and equipment in the car, we were set.  We just needed to check on the following day’s conditions and revise the meeting time, if need be. 

The weather report was a bit surprising.  Unlike what we’d originally expected, it was going to be a cool day, with temperatures ranging from upper 50’s to the lower 60’s. So, We revised our start time.  Our original plan was to start early, at 6 AM, to beat the heat.  But given the revised temperatures, and the expected cloud cover, we delayed our start by an hour.  That meant an extra hour of sleep.  I was thankful for that extra rest, knowing what we had ahead of us.

Wake Early
20111119_053934_SantiagoPeakThe morning started early enough, even with the extra hour of sleep.  I knew I had to meet up Christopher at about 6:30 AM and I had a half hour drive to our meeting point at Cook’s Corner.  Given my want to load up on protein in the mornings and get my usual two cups of coffee, I woke at 5 AM.  I made my five egg-white omelet with avocadoes and salsa.  Even if you’re not a breakfast person, you don’t want to skip out on breakfast on a long walk day.  

After breakfast, I loaded up Jiggy and headed out to Cook’s Corner.  We got there a bit early.  I took the chance to step out of the car and get a feel for the weather.  No doubt.  It was going to be a crisp day.  The temperature was at 57 degrees.  The air was misty.  one might even say, it was sprinkling.  Given the time of day, there was hardly anyone on the road.  There was another group in a car getting ready for a hike or something.  They were waiting at Cook’s as well. 

It didn’t take long before Christopher showed up though, just at 6:30 AM.  Perfect.  We only had another half hour of drive…or so we thought.

Trabuco Creek Road, up until the Holy Jim Canyon Road turn off ,was paved, but from there on it was a dirt road.  I thought, “No problem.  This should be a short 5 mile drive to the trailhead.” Huh!!!  It turned out, you really needed a high-clearance car or truck to get to this place.  A four-wheel drive would have been ideal, but at least a truck.  The road was not just dirt, but rocky, with potholes large and small.  What’s more, a stream crossed the path a number of times.  By “crossed” I mean we literally drove through the water.  There was no bridge.  I could see how you could get stuck out here if it rained heavily.  Knowing this, I looked up from time to time, considering the clouds and likelihood of any rain.  I was beginning to have doubts whether our cars would make it back if we had heavy rainfall.  Here’s to hoping!

My car’s front bottomed out a number of times over the ups and downs of the road.  Christopher was in no better shape, with both of us driving at about 2 to 5 miles per hour, carefully negotiating the rocky road.  Eventually, at about 1/2 a mile to the Holy Jim trailhead, we decided our cars had enough punishment. We found a wide section on the road with a turnout and parked. 

Trailhead
20111119_074802_SantiagoPeakWith about half a mile to go, we figured we weren’t extending our walk by much.  The trail was supposed to be 16 miles roundtrip.  What’s another half a mile each way, one mile roundtrip, added on? 

Aside from the flying rocks and bottoming out the cars, the rough road had another interesting effect: it triggered Jiggy’s motion sickness.  The poor guy vomited part of his dinner.  I was definitely thankful for the seat cover, but, more importantly, concerned for my buddy.  No doubt he wasn’t feeling too hot now, right before starting out on a long walk.  That’s the funny thing about dogs and, especially, Jiggy: They live in the moment.  It took just a whiff of the outdoors for him to cheer up.  He jumped out of the car, wagging his tail, ready to take on the trail, without a care for what had just happened.  No doubt, he was just enjoying the moment, the feeling of the crisp air, and the notion of exploring something new.  There’s a lesson there to be learned, but that’s for another post. 

After checking all our equipment and locking doors, we headed off at 7:16 AM.  Just a quarter mile out, we realized we didn’t place our Adventure Pass (parking permits) on the cars.  Yeah! They were still sitting, nice and cozy, in my backpack.  Oof!  So, we turned around and realized we were adding another half a mile roundtrip to our day.  More exercise, right?

After placing the passes and running a final check, we headed out again.  Eventually we arrived at the trailhead.  There were others taking on the hike as well.  Knowing we weren’t alone in this, was reassuring, though I was a bit concerned about having too many people on the trail.  We didn’t know how true that would be given the events that would follow.

Hike Up
20111119_080623_SantiagoPeakOh yeah.  We were on the trail now.  We initially saw a number of old cabins on the trail.  They were all in various degrees of disrepair, with one that looked just abandoned.  Its windows broken, door ajar, and some debris by the steps.  I wondered what had happened to the owners.  Why did they abandon the cabin?  The cabins weren’t that great, but I loved the location.  This was our last bit of civilization before heading into the woods. 

Initially our path crossed a stream, the same one from the dirt road.   This was Jiggy’s first experience with a stream.  He looked at it quizzically each time we tried to pass it.  On the first attempt, he slowly moved from rock to rock, trying not to get wet, while smelling all around him, getting a feel for what was going on. By the third time, he was outright scared of it.  He didn’t want to cross. 

20111119_082516_SantiagoPeakThankfully, his backpack is designed just for such a scenario.  The pack has a handle so that he can be carried.  So, for the remainder of our crossings, I carried him like a briefcase across each stream.  This was actually a bit funny since he still tried to walk in mid-air.  It looked like he was doggy paddling, swimming through the air.  Christopher and I got a few chuckles watching him figure out what was going on. 

Though the trail started out wide enough for two or three people to walk side-by-side, it eventually narrowed to a single track, just wide enough for one person.  At some sections it was even narrower than that, with each of us brushing against the native plants.  So, we were forced to walk single-file, with Christopher leading the group, Jiggy trying to catch up with him, and me bringing up the rear.

Occasionally, we’d negotiate the path with other hikers coming down.  At one point, Christopher heard noise from up above.  Given the tall bushes around us, we didn’t know what was making the sound.  This was at a part of the trail when we were going through switchbacks.  So, what he heard made him think of falling rocks, coming down toward us.  We stopped to make sure we weren’t in any danger.  When the sound seemed to move away, we started up again.  Suddenly, we saw a group of bikers ahead of us, speeding toward us.  All of us jumped out of the way to avoid a collision, but these guys seemed to know what they were doing.  They slowed down and passed us without incident.

20111119_084308_SantiagoPeakWe picked up again and continued our trek.  Along the way, we had some amazing views and changing scenery, from tunnels made of overhanging trees, to views of the gorge in between the mountain peaks.  This was all the more interesting and mysterious given we climbed from 1,700 ft to 5,600 ft, seeing the overcast clouds to eventually walking among them.  At some parts, our view was completely obstructed, but the winds were blowing well enough to open windows in the rolling fog and expose scenes of amazing natural beauty, while cooling us on our laborious trek.  

Half way up the mountain, I could no longer bear walking with just my t-shirt, even as warmed up as I was.  In fact, I was sweating up a storm, but the temperature was dropping quickly. The winds didn’t help either.  I eventually put on my jacket to prevent the wind from cutting right through me. 

The Holy Jim Trail ended at 4 Miles into the walk.  The rest of the path to the peak was on a fire road, the Main Divide Road.  This was a rocky road, with many turns and, as it turned out, may travelers.  Later I learned the path starts much further down and is another way to get to the peak.  The first person we saw, gave us pause though.  He was partially jogging and walking up the trail.  What was curious about the scene was that he was wearing a number. 

We let it go, but just a few minutes later, we saw another walker/jogger, also with numbers on his clothes.  We asked if there was a race gong on.

“Yeah,” said the second jogger.  “100k or 100 miles run.”

WHAT?!?!?

One hundred kilometers is about 67 miles.  So, 67 mile or 100 mile race?  Sure enough, there were two groups in the race.  Some were running the 100km and others the 100 miles.  Talk about extreme!  We had nothing on these super-marathoners.  I was certainly impressed, though also concerned for them.  As we thought about the pace we were keeping, an average marathon pace, as well as the 10 to 15% grade we were on, we realized these folks must have started at about 4 AM and would continue running until 10 or 11 PM.  That’s nuts!

At the Peak20111119_121350_SantiagoPeak
We reached the peak at  11:45 AM.  It took us four and a half hour to complete those first 8.5 miles, but it was worth it.  By the time we reached the peak, the mountain was completely covered in the clouds.  The wind was blowing hard and the temperature had dropped to 37 degrees.  We had very little visibility at the top.  We certainly couldn’t see any of Orange County, let alone the surrounding mountains.  All we saw were the communication towers at the peak, where we were standing.  There were others there too, basking in the glory of reaching the peak.  Many of them were bikers, but some were hikers like us that had taken the Holy Jim Trail. 

We were all thankful for the small building there.  All of us took refuge behind it, away from the winds, as we spent our half hour resting, eating and quenching our thirst. I tended to Jiggy first, knowing he would be starving by now.  He vacuumed up his two cups of kibble, then downed a quarter liter of his water.  On the way up, at our various stops, I’d offered him water he’d refused.  Knowing the cool air helped him reduce his need for water, and in an attempt to lighten his load, I emptied half a liter of his water.  He now only had a quarter liter of water in his pack.  I still carried another half a liter for him, as well as an additional two and a half liters backup, aside from my three liter main water bladder.  So, I had no concerns we would have enough.

I’d originally thought we’d spend an hour at the top, but the cold air and the wind prevented us from staying there long.  In fact, I had to put on a fleece vest and my gloves, as well as the jacket and hat just to stay there for as long as did. 

At about 12:15 PM, just a half hour after arriving at the peak, we started our way back down.

20111119_124509_SantiagoPeakHike Down
By the time we started our hike down, I was cold to the bones and glad we’d started.  I knew the walk would warm me up.  I was also interested to see how much time it would take to walk back down.  With four and a half hour hike up, we figured we’d need three and a half hours to get back. 

Interestingly enough, just as we came down the first 30 ft, we saw a break in the clouds to our left and caught a glimpse of what appeared to be Palm Springs or Lake Elsinore area.  It didn’t take long for the winds to blow in the clouds and obscure our view again. 

As an added bonus, light rain started.  Even with the cold, this was somewhat welcome as it dampened the road and assured we’d have less dust picking up.  Jiggy was very good with it too.  He just kept walking…at least at first.  He eventually stopped and looked up at me.  We waited a few seconds before encouraging him to start walking again. 

20111119_124536_SantiagoPeak“Let’s go, boy.  Let’s go Jiggy boy,” I said.  He picked up, but was wobbling a bit.  I realized the loose rocks and added pack weight, even with most of his water drained, may be tiring his paws.  So, I unpacked his backpack and strapped it on mine.  Sure enough, after just a few minutes, he was as happy as can be, even with the rain.  He pulled ahead and started scouting the road, with his floppy ears bouncing left to right. 

Surprisingly, the walk back down wasn’t as long nor as tiring.  We certainly didn’t stop as often to rest, which is partially why it took only three hours to get down.  Once we got close to the end of the Holy Jim Trail though, I had to put Jiggy’s backpack on.  I wanted to make sure I could carry him across the stream at the various crossings.  This proved unnecessary since by then Jiggy was a pro.  He was eagerly lunging his muscle-bound physique forward, hopping from rock to rock. 

End of Day
The end of day came at about 3:10 PM, almost eight hours after our early morning start.  Christopher and I were exhausted, though Jiggy looked like he could walk another half a day, given how he gleefully kept trudging forward.  We’d walked a total of 17.5 miles, up from the original planned and expected 16 miles. 

SantiagoPeakTrailMap

I certainly learned that no matter what goals you set and achieve, you’ll always be challenged to do more by those around you.  The super marathoners certainly demonstrated that. I also heard and shared many good stories with my friend Christopher T.  Once again realizing the importance of the right companionships in trying journeys.

I was certainly glad that my buddy, Jiggy, was with us.  I was very happy he’s graduated to a long-distance hiker, rock hopper, and all around outdoor dog, as his lineage dictates, no doubt.  It was a pleasure seeing his athletic physique in action.

What’s Next
With so much learned and achieved from this hike, I realized I was perfectly capable of  completing and looking forward to our future hikes.  I knew I’d have to rest a couple of weeks before starting training for the next hike though.

This brings us to the present week.  This Monday was the start of training for our next big hike:  either Mt. San Gorgonio at 11,499 ft., 5,419 ft. elevation gain and 15.6 miles roundtrip, or Mt. San Jacinto at 10,834 ft., 2,300 ft. elevation gain and 11 miles roundtrip.  Assuming all goes well with the next 14 weeks of training, this next big hike will be on March 10, 2012. 

Anybody else want to join us?

What Do You Think?

Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.

Photo Credits

Yours truly