Extending an invitation to participate in a backpacking trip is an act of faith. Faith that the invitee will not be an utter trail disaster. Then there is the responsibility tacitly accepted by the trip hosts to drag the pilgrim’s butt out of wherever should the trail disaster scenario play out in a particularly profound fashion. I found myself in a position that I had not experienced in many, many years: I had been invited to participate in a backpacking trip with a couple of seasoned pros. I would be the New Guy. Perhaps the history documented in this blog, including my recent solo backpack revisitation of Madulce, provided me a bit of credibility. Nonetheless, I felt uneasy playing the role of the randomizing factor. Backpacking is inherently a stochastic undertaking easily tipped into chaos with the introduction of new variables. However, this was a chance to continue my Los Padres Return concept and, most importantly, to load a pack and spend a few days in the Southern Los Padres backcountry. No chance I would squander the opportunity; the flight was booked within moments of receiving a firm date for the trip.
The final plan for the trip was to base camp at Sheep Camp in the Chumash Wilderness and wander the neighborhood a bit. I had not been to this spot since 1985 but I remembered a big, comfortable camp situated among tall pines on the south slope of Sawmill Mountain on the Mount Pinos massif. I was in a place where a backpack that could also serve as R & R, as opposed to a pure death march, was a good thing. When I was informed of the menu for the trip, including beef fajitas and Guinness stout, it was clear that all the components conducive to attitude decompression were in place.
This would not be the first time that the Mount Pinos area had served as a location for personal decompression. Perhaps in 2012 the need was purely self indulgent, but in1985 the need was acute. After the Wheeler Incident fire in 1985, which affected me in very real ways in combination with other milestone life events, I decided what I needed was to go up high into the trees and relax. I started in the San Bernardino Mountains revisiting for the first time since 1978 Mount San Gorgonio and San Bernardino Peak via the trails from Mill Creek (these trails gain more than 5000 feet elevation in just over seven miles, a concentration focuser for me exceeding any internally chanted mantra). But, as always, my thoughts returned to the Los Padres. I had been to Mount Pinos as far back as the mid-1960s to visit the Condor lookout and had spent a number of winter days in the early 1970s on the mountain. But I had not hiked there. Serendipitously, I came across a pamphlet, “A Hiker’s Guide to Peak Bagging in the Mount Pinos Region” and that settled the matter. I still have that book, the first edition published in 1985. I do not see any evidence there was a later edition. Off I went to hike up Grouse and Sawmill Mountains from the trail head on Cerro Noroeste (Mount Abel) and to visit Sheep Camp via the steep trail from Three Falls. I remember thinking at the time that it would be nice to base at Sheep Camp and hang out for a few days exploring the area and engaging in some photography. Like so many things, the idea never progressed to execution.
So there I was, in Ojai the morning of Saturday, April 28, 2012 heaving a loaded backpack into a truck preparing to head up Highway 33 to a trail head. Suddenly, time had flipped 180° and I had returned to an earlier state. While I can happily dispense with much of the nonsense that has gone on in any particular stage of my life, this was one part worth reclaiming. Backpacking with real backpackers and trail canines – I only hoped I was still worthy.
As I have described elsewhere in this blog I never abandoned hiking. I have lugged camera and tripod (and lunch and water) up trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Adirondack Mountains and the Bitterroot Mountains among other places. But these were solo, day trip exercises for the most part. The backpacking crew I hiked with in the late 1960s through the mid 1970s had long since dissipated to oblivion. A very productive hiking period in the early 1980s through 1992 with Jon B. had passed into history as well, a victim of life’s proclivity to intrude on, well, pretty much anything one might want to do. And, of course, day hiking, irrespective of difficulty, is not backpacking. And I had not backpacked much since a trip in Big Bend National Park in November, 1992. It occurred to me as I enumerated the gear for this trip that my Sierra Club cup had passed its fortieth birthday. The pointlessness of such thoughts also occurred to me; I am sure the cup was not counting. This is the slippery slope to sentimentality which basically turns one into a pain to be around. While I suppose it might be somewhat accurate to say that, philosophically speaking, hiking had become for me an exercise in solipsism it is also fair to say that this is a big pile of irrelevance. It was time to go backpacking in the Los Padres; I had not forgotten how that works.
The plan was simple but elegant: hike to Sheep Camp from the Mt. Pinos parking lot at the end of the pavement and shuttle through to Three Falls camp the third day. We dropped the shuttle vehicle at Three Falls but I did not recognize the place at all despite having hiked to Sheep Camp from there in 1985. The parking lot at the end of the road at Mt. Pinos was entirely familiar as was the old Condor lookout area at the end of the closed dirt road from the parking lot.
Let me make an observation at this point: when one loads two eight packs of Guinness Stout, grilled beef fajitas and fixings, cooking gear, a tent, a Thermarest, a sleeping bag and other stuff into a backpack the result is an edifice of skyscraper proportions and weight. CRC’s backpack was the tallest load I have seen, taller even than Jon B’s overloaded Jansport D2 on a snowshoeing trip in 1984. I tried the pack on and estimated the weight was in excess of “really heavy bastard I am happy not to carry.”
As photography is part of my backcountry schtick, I brought a camera, four lenses, a tripod and full panoramic head set up. The nice lady back in the midwest who watches over such things has mandated that if I am going to invest in such gear I need to produce at least one good picture from each trip. That pressure was now exacerbated by the two witnesses to my photo equipment excess on this trip. No risk, no reward, I suppose.
Three backpackers, CRC, JM and EMW, were mustered in the Mt. Pinos parking area, gear on and ready to go; a bearded, Caledonian-looking crew, no doubt. I was struck by the thought that if we were assembled here in kilts we would look like extras from Braveheart, the expendable ones who get hit by arrows before the heavy cavalry charge. In a logical thought progression I took a moment to recall the state of my sun block application. Check; ready to go.
We walked up the closed dirt road to the Condor observation site and from there ambled to Sheep Camp. The route along the spine of the Mt. Pinos massif was as alpine nice as I recalled. Upon arrival at Sheep Camp we ambitiously sat for a while contemplating the perfect weather and the basic wonderfulness of our large, comfortable camp site under the pines with the commanding views of the Cuyama Valley and Pine Mountain. At some point we did the normal camp set-up chores. As CRC and JM started dinner preparations I scouted for a sunset shot. I envisioned a very wide angle photo so I needed a strong foreground. While scouting along the ridge closely attended by the dog contingent, who were not yet convinced the new guy was safe to wander without competent oversight, I noticed a rock and tree overlook that angled over the ridge directly into the setting sun. I set the tripod up and hoped I could achieve a photo worthy of the scene.
By the time I had the tripod in place a fire was going in the large fire pit and steak fajitas were cooking. The Guinness was unpacked and cool. Life was perfect. While relaxing after eating and drinking very well I realized I was getting the sunset I was hoping for but unless I actually put the camera on the tripod and set up the exposures I would miss the shot. I jogged over to the tripod with the camera, made the adjustments that seemed appropriate and hoped for the best as I fired the shutter.
The next morning after a restful night we partook of a breakfast of corned beef hash and chopped onion; well earned decadence in my opinion, although I was not particularly concerned with the “well earned” part. At the crack of noon we headed off to hike to the summit of Grouse Mountain. After reaching the saddle between Sawmill and Grouse Mountains, we left the trail for the mildly cross country route (cairns and some use trail were evident) to the summit. To my chagrin, the route did not look at all familiar to me although I had been on the summit of Grouse Mountain twice in 1985. My memory from 1985 is that I left the trail and followed a compass bearing, but that was it. When I returned home and checked my old Mt. Pinos peak bagging book it was clear I had followed the same route off the trail in 1985 as 2012 but in 1985 I hiked from the trail head below Camp Alto on Cerro Noroeste. Oh well, it had been nearly twenty seven years.
Back from Grouse Mountain, preparations were made for another gourmet trail camp dinner and another comfortable night at Sheep Camp, which I now think of as Campo Rancho Deluxe. I looked for a sunset overview of the Cuyama Valley. Although the point at which the sun met the mountains was a good 60° north of the overview and the sky was not particularly dramatic that evening it was still another superb Chumash Wilderness nightfall. And there was Guinness left (although to my shame I was so distracted reviewing photos on the LCD of my camera that I failed to finish my last one; I am sure I will never live that down).
Dinner time; Campo Rancho Deluxe (Sheep Camp), April 29, 2012
The next day we headed out to Three Falls Camp. The trail was steep in spots, a fact I recalled in an intellectual sense although I recognized nothing below Sheep Camp. But it was another perfect day hiking with the Los Padres Bearded Wonders and the dogs, Marvin the cheerful and willing and Masha the serious and competent (aka the Uber Hund). I had the opportunity to shoot some Chumash Rock art and in doing so got to deploy my outstanding, thirty year old Nikon Micro 55mm f/2.8 lens. This was the first time I had used this optic in field; previously it was only used on a copy stand to reproduce electron microscope negatives and prints onto slide film. For the better part of 20 years it had been held in careful storage. And here I will stop short of annoying anthropomorphic cliches and simply reiterate that this is a fine assemblage of metal and optical glass and as such is a joy to use.
The sight of the falls near the end of the trip brought back an old memory of standing in front of this landmark in 1985 speaking with man who rode in on a three wheel ATV of some kind. He was part of the turkey ranching operation that existed in the area at one time, but that is as much as I remember. It was the first time that day I had recognized a specific local feature. For some reason this moment of clarity near the end of the hike felt like a perfect ending to the day.
The final sprint, Camp Three Falls, April 30, 2012
See also the full sized Flickr video of a finish worthy of a Homerian epic tale.
And then came the sequel to the perfect end to the day. On the way back to Ojai we stopped at the Reyes Creek Grill at Camp Scheideck. Although they were out of tri-tip for the eponymous sandwich, the burgers were a worthy substitute.
That evening in Ojai I reflected on the events of the past three days. I was fortunate to have been included in this trip and I greatly appreciate the act of faith on the part of CRC and JM. CRC, author, historian and blogger; the Los Padres Raconteur, has extolled the virtues of the Chumash Wilderness in the prelude to this piece and he is, of course, absolutely correct. Take his advice; go there. In about 48 hours I would be on a red eye east with the usual stuff waiting when I arrived. It was all good; I had backpacking pictures to process and that feeling of improved perspective that might hold me until I can get away again to the Los Padres. Before too long; no more of this twenty year BS.