TRIP REPORT: Big Sur Death March—Day 1

October 26, 2012 | Adventures, Trip Reports

Story by Deek Speredelozzi • Photos by Deek Speredelozzi and Shane McCarthy •

trip_report_badgeBig Sur Highway To Nowhere Creek Camp

We parked the cars on a narrow dirt shoulder at the foot of Partington Ridge Road, along the side of Highway 1—more intimately known in these parts as the Big Sur Highway; and immediately set to sorting through our gear in preparation for our 25-mile walk in the woods- a quaint term, as we would soon find out first-hand. As we bustled about at the side of the road, the cacophony wafting up and over the 600-foot cliff beyond the guardrail could not go unnoticed by hearing ears. “The greatest meeting of land and sea to be found on Earth,” it has been often called; and when you’re there experiencing it with your senses, you find that the reality of the place offers scant ammunition with which one might mount a counterargument, if one were ever so inclined—and I doubt many have been. Far below the highway, out of sight to us from where we stood on the inland side of the road, the brute force of the Pacific Ocean relentlessly hammered its immense waves against the feet of the mountain on which we stood. Jagged rock teeth, ceaselessly assailed by the tireless pounding of the pitiless surf, held their ground valiantly against the onslaught, giving up no ground, but gaining just as little. Ocean vs. continent: stalemate, or symbiosis? At any rate, it sure sounded like a battle from where I was standing. As one of nature’s greatest dramas played itself out at the base of the cliff, the resulting uproar overpowered the sounds of chirping birds, screeching cicadas, and buzzing bees (though these were all much closer at hand), reducing them to mere background noise in the face of the calamitous din.

We hadn’t even put on our backpacks yet when the universe sent us our first sign that we were in for a trial—though on the off chance that any of us somehow missed this omen, there would be plenty more to come over the course of the next three days.

The first problem was that Dennis, after having apparently agreed to pack trail clothes for both himself and his girlfriend, Emily (the Elf), had somehow managed to forget hers, leaving them in a neatly-folded stack on the bed in their apartment, 150 road-miles north of here in San Francisco. Now, if you’ve ever tried to go clothes shopping in Big Sur, you know how unrewarding an undertaking this is. The village of Big Sur is a great place to shop for, say, a beer, or a postcard, or a commemorative trinket carved out of faux-wood; but something to wear- good luck with that. Unless of course you like to don overpriced t-shirts with “Big Sur” etched in 3-D puffy pink lettering, scrawled in an exaggerated cursive script.

The closest full-service town was Monterey, 40 miles back up Highway 1; and there was no time for such a time-consuming shopping spree today, considering that we had at least six miles, and several thousand vertical feet, to go, under heavy packs, in the hot sun, before we’d reach our first night’s camp. So although no amount of cheesy Big Sur souvenir t-shirts was going to satisfy Emily’s need for practical, comfortable trail-wear for the next three days, we were going to have to make do with whatever meager offerings could be found in Big Sur.

So Dennis and I jumped into the Elf’s Honda Civic and drove the 10 miles back up to Big Sur (from where we had just come), to see what we might accomplish to this unpromising, yet-critical, end. We pulled into the first place that we came to—a fancy-shmancy little quasi-boutique on the south side of “town,” and went inside to peruse its meager offerings. The place was definitely good for a few chuckles; but nevertheless, within ten minutes we were back in the car with a bag of gaudy, never-to-be-worn-again cheap-ass t-shirts, and Dennis’s wallet a hundred bucks lighter. And fifteen minutes after that we were standing right back again by the side of the road with the rest of our crew, showing a less-than-enthused Emily her temporary new wardrobe. But you only have to look so good on the trail, right? Either way, it certainly wasn’t worth torpedoing the trip to waste any more time on the problem. Even Emily knew that.

Ascending Partington Ridge

We hit the trail sometime in the early afternoon. The sun was not far past the zenith of its day’s trajectory; there wasn’t a cloud to be seen anywhere in the sky; and the day was hot—in the mid-to-upper 80s, which is damn hot for backpacking, and especially hot for being scarcely a tenth of a mile away from the frothing breakers of the Pacific.

The plan was to hike the little-used DeAngulo Trail up along Partington Ridge and eventually onto the North Coast Ridge, front range of the western Santa Lucia Mountains (known locally as the Big Sur Mountains), then, joining the Big Sur Trail, down into the canyon of the South Fork of the Big Sur River, up and over another steep ridge, down into the canyon of the North Fork of the Big Sur, then up to the crest of Pine Ridge, the central east-west ridge of the range, where we would join the Pine Ridge Trail, the area’s most popular, and hike it west through Sykes Hot Springs, and on out to Big Sur Station, where we had stashed my girlfriend’s Nissan Pathfinder. With the exception of the initial climb up Partington Ridge, a section of private land holdings through which an easement had been granted for hikers, the entire trip would be in the Ventana Wilderness, a popular and rugged, federally-designated wilderness area within the much larger Los Padres National Forest- the state’s largest. The Los Padres National Forest is comprised of all of the federally-protected forest lands along the central coast of California: from Monterey in the north, to the northwestern fringes of the Los Angeles basin in the south, ending at last where I-5 separates it from the Angeles National Forest, 200 miles away to the southeast (if you travel by crow).

The ascent of Partington Ridge would be a quad-busting, pitiless climb of 3,000 vertical feet over a mere three and a half miles; and hopefully morale-saving justification for this was that nobody else would be crazy enough to do this, under a heavy pack- especially on a swelter-fest of a day such as this was. Also, in addition to all of our food and gear, we would all be heavily-laden with bottles of water from the start, seeing as how we wouldn’t be passing a reliable water source until we’d gone at least six miles, up and over a 3,500-foot ridge. Thus, the wisdom went, we would have the area all to ourselves once we reached the wilderness area on the back side of the ridge. After that, the rest of the trip would surely be a cake-walk, right? RIGHT?

The team was: myself, my pal Dennis, Emily, our friend Jeremy, his girlfriend Melissa, our pal Shane, and two dogs. Phantom (aka: The Tommy Beast) is Dennis and Emily’s tireless, curly-black-furred Irish Wolfhound; and Dicha (R.I.P.) was Jeremy and Melissa’s older, more quietly-distinguished golden retriever. Phantom had the air of a dog that feels he cannot afford to relax for even a split second while in the great outdoors, presumably because he never knows when he will be again relegated to a primarily indoor existence back in the city. Now Dicha, while he clearly loved to frolic about in the wilds of the world like any other dog, had more of a reserved demeanor, almost as if he preferred to keep a little bit of distance between himself and his peers, with all of their visceral, undignified doings. Dicha, while in no way haughty about it, seemed to be, for the most part, genuinely above the cringe-worthy antics of his fellows, opting most of the time to travel with his peeps, while his less-cerebral contemporaries occupied themselves by tearing wildly through the woods and harassing the wildlife. The Tommy Beast, by contrast, just didn’t give a shit. Anytime his team was on the move, his time would be spent furiously running back and forth along the trail, patrolling the area with his lidless eyes and well-tuned shnoz, trying to keep his crew properly corralled and protected. Oft times, Phantom could not be so much seen as heard, ripping through the underbrush on either side of the trail, heedless of all obstacles in his way. And if you were a small creature on four legs, or a bird resting at ground level, woe to you if the cross-hairs of Phantom’s murder-scope ever got a lock on you. Snooze for a split second and you would soon find yourself in pieces all over the trail, with the T-Beast’s saliva mingling with the blood gushing forth from your broken body.

Phantom Beast

Among our group, I had the most experience backpacking the Ventana Wilderness, having done several trips in the area over the preceding seven years. Thus, I was sort of the unofficial leader of the group, which also meant that I would be the primary person held accountable for any mishaps, hardships or other difficulties seen to be born of poor planning. That said, I had never been on any of the trails that we would be on for the first two days of our planned hike; though I had hiked the Pine Ridge Trail across the range, from the east, a few years earlier. In planning for the substantial chunk of this trip that would take us through what would be new and unfamiliar terrain for me, I had relied entirely on the maps I already owned—which were at least a few years old at the time—and whatever online accounts I could find of previous travelers’ experiences in the area, the most recent of which was already more than three years old. As I well know, and had known for some time even then, trail conditions in the wilderness can change drastically over the course of even a single winter. So in retrospect, I guess I can’t deny that I pretty much phoned it in during the research phase of this trip. I should have drilled down a lot deeper than I did when seeking information about the area we would be visiting. For instance, I hadn’t even thought to check with any National Forest staff on the current conditions of any of these specific trails. I just brazenly figured that a trail named “The Big Sur Trail” would naturally have to be somewhat of a cornerstone of the area, and would thus be, in all likelihood, a trail in which maintenance crews took a special pride, maintaining it with a more vigorous and dutiful fervor than they did most of the other, less-grandly-monikered routes through the area. But there was a lot assuming embedded within that thought process.

Dennis and Deek

Turning at last from the vehicles to begin the climb, we passed through the gate at the foot of Partington Ridge Road, and began to climb. My map showed the DeAngulo Trail as a route basically paralleling the private-access-only Partington Ridge Road, mostly on an actual trail, but at times literally running along the road; so at first we were simply walking the road. Partington Ridge Road, a dirt track overgrown for frequent stretches with tall grass, but never lacking for a pair of well-worn tire-tracks running up the middle, had a pitch that at points couldn’t have been much less than the steepest that could conceivably bear a passenger vehicle safely up a rugged mountainside; and at times it was hard to even picture a mid-sized pickup truck squeezing safely in between the vertical hillside and the sheer dropoffs that framed the road for most of its length on the lower parts of the mountain.

At first, the ocean was lost to view behind trees and shrubs, but after a few switchbacks of the road, we were above the tops of those trees, and the great blue expanse of the Pacific was again revealed to us. Though none of us were particularly of a mind to enjoy these vistas just yet—there was work to be done here—and the views were only gonna get better as we climbed. And climb we did.

After only about 10 minutes of uphill trudging, we reached a switchback of the road, from which a faint trail departed, appearing to contour upward and out of sight around a bend. During the internet-and-map research phase of this trip, I had read repeatedly that through-hikers on Partington Ridge were required to stay on trails whenever a trail was available, the easement for walking along the road being valid only on stretches un-served by an alternate foot-trail. “Well then,” I said, “I guess this is where we depart the road for the trail,” ignoring the voice in my head telling me that this was far too soon in the climb for us to be reaching a foot-trail, assuming that my map was up-to-date and accurate.

I led the way up the foot-trail; and immediately it began to grow increasingly faint, and progressively more askew from the level, such that I was soon walking with my right knee bent uncomfortably, and my left leg exhaustingly extended, to account for the profoundly slanted surface of the trail. After less than two minutes of walking, this “trail” petered out completely in a sea of thorns and poison-oak-ravaged bushes. I halted, calling for the team to retreat back to the road. There were groans of disapproval aplenty, and murmurs of annoyance, including my own. For I feared that, if this was already happening here—a mere two or three hundred vertical feet above Highway 1, then perhaps this whole ridge would be peppered with false trails leading to nowhere; and the last thing we needed, especially on Day 1, with thousands of feet of steep mountain climbing still ahead of us, was to be wasting precious time and energy chasing ghosts on a hostile hillside sloped towards an abyss of brambles, stinging insects, and skin-busting oils.

Back on the road, we continued to plod upward, each at our own slow, methodical pace. Most talking had ceased within the group, as nobody likes to yammer on and on in conditions where each breath is a trial- not even me. The Phantom Beast, however, raced up and down the road as if he were in a shaded forest, on a level trail, alongside a babbling brook, having just come off of a hearty night’s rest. Dicha, assuming as always an air somewhere between canine and human, bopped along with the crew, clearly enjoying being on a hike with his family and friends, but apparently un-inclined to over-exert himself so early on in the proceedings. Knowing that dude, he had probably conducted his own research into the details of the hike weeks ago, calculating exactly what would be required for him to execute the challenge comfortably, and then responded accordingly by pre-allotting himself the appropriate amount of exertion per trail-mile, and not a dog-minute more.

After the troubling foray onto that first useless side-trail, subsequent quasi-promising trails were given more proper scrutiny, which usually consisted of me, or one of the other fools, dropping backpack and scoping out the trail for a few hundred yards before even considering whether or not to encourage the rest of the team to follow along. Good thing, too; because there turned out to be several more of these red herring trails along the lower sections of Partington Ridge Road; so our efforts to minimize backtracking and its consequent depletion of morale proved worthwhile.

Finally, however, we came to a more well-worn-looking side trail; and this one corresponded nicely with my map’s indication of where we should find the trail we were seeking. Nevertheless, I scoped it out before committing the team to the fate it held. But thankfully, this trail did not deteriorate at all in its first few hundred yards. I summoned my crew. Initially, this trail proceeded along in just the way that you expect that a proper trail will: reasonably clear of overhanging brush and debris, and on a mostly-level pitch, so that one could actually walk along its surface with both feet at the same elevation, except in those spots where the trail crossed some kind of intervening obstacle whose expeditious circumnavigation required a bit of fancy footwork. Initially, this trail provided a welcome break from the quad-busting ascent that had characterized the walk up to this point—now climbing only intermittently, and even then for only 10 or 20 feet at a time. Instead, for the most part, the trail contoured fairly pleasantly around the bulk of the curving hillside, and after awhile even offered some ocean views. Yep, we sure were cooking now.

After awhile, however, the rent came due, as it always does; and our trail terminated abruptly at a violent washout where the supported hillside above had given way and collapsed on top of it. A large pile of dirt and rock now lay directly in our path, obscuring the trail completely; and there were no boot-prints leading over the heap of rubble—only the dainty imprints of deer hooves; so if anybody was going to blaze this trail, it would be us. There was no spot nearby where one could sit comfortably, or gather a group for discussion, as the brush was laid too thickly for that, both above and below the trail. The idea of retreat was unpalatable to all; and in an effort to prevent this most unwelcome, and potentially fatal for-morale, course of action, I vowed to fully investigate the extent of the washout before we made any rash decisions on how to proceed. Maybe the trail simply resumed its non-problematic trajectory just beyond the visible section of the washout, I reasoned. Maybe the washout was only twenty feet across, and could be traversed with minimal difficulty after all. Maybe this was the only washout along the trail. It was impossible to say for sure from where I stood, as the route curved away out of sight around the bulk of the washout, and soon led into a tight river-canyon.

I unclipped my hip belt and let my pack slide down my right shoulder and fall onto the narrow trail at my feet, and made my way up onto the dirt of the buried section. My legs sunk knee-deep into soft dirt with each step; and I could hear the groans of the ladies behind me who, seeing this, did not relish the prospect of having to attempt negotiation of this stretch under their heavy packs. But a few long, difficult strides later and I was standing back on the trail, on the far side of the washout. I called for folks to start making their way across the debris slide; and after a few more unenthusiastic moans reached my ears, carried on the breeze, I began to see the tops of backpacks bobbing along behind the curve of the washout, slowly coming into view. It was indeed a trial after all; but before five minutes had passed since my calling out to the troops, everybody was safely past the landslide. Momentarily re-emboldened, the team hiked on while I went back to retrieve my pack.

I caught up to the group a couple minutes later, where they had again stopped, not more than a half mile past the debris pile we’d all just fought our way across so determinedly. This time, however, the problem was not so obvious as before; and that, more than anything else, was the crux of the problem. At least the washout had been a “known” enemy, so to speak. There it had been, plainly laid out before us; and if one could only get across it, the problem would be thus neutralized, with no hidden costs or fine print to contend with. This new inconvenience, however, was more insidious; for it appeared that, after everything we’d invested in this trail, it was quickly going the way of its fellows from lower down on the mountain. Dissolving rapidly into a cluster-fuck of everything you don’t want to hurl your backpack-laden body into, the route soon became utterly impassable. Even I was not willing to attempt to crash through it; and even if I had been, there was no way I was gonna get this crew to press on through any more of this type of bullshit terrain—at least not until we’d first covered some distance without difficulty. It appeared that it might actually be time to execute a hasty retreat back to the cars, in acknowledged defeat, unless some obvious and promising lifeline were to immediately present itself, unlooked for.

Meeting The Locals

Shane, who has ever been one you can trust to be proactive whenever a trip is on the line, or any other time it’s appropriate, found a faint line leading up the hill, in the direction we had been traveling. After an initially steep first 20 or 30 yards, the line appeared to level off around the bend. The group, though not exactly what I would call enthused at this in-no-way-guaranteed-to-pay-off option, was at least in collective agreement that beating our way back across the landslide and calling it a trip was less than desirable at mid-afternoon on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

We reluctantly dragged ourselves up the faint little escape route; and, to our immeasurable delight, the ground did indeed level off after less than 100 feet of walking. The fact that it leveled off into a clearing with no discernible trail running through it was a secondary, and as yet unacknowledged, detail. The thrill of the moment was simply that we could enjoy having extracted ourselves from the horrible mess through which we had just pulled ourselves—and could maybe even gather ourselves in a circle, or sit down and rest for a moment, with our packs on the ground beside us.

But this was not to be. Not yet, anyway. On the far side of the small clearing, some lengths of PVC piping could be seen, running up from the river-canyon below and disappearing over a low rise just above us, over which we could not see. The sound of flowing water could be heard emanating from within the pipes; and several bags of sod lay in a pile beside them. “Okay, then,” I observed aloud. “We’ve stumbled onto a grow-op. Well that’s fun.” The death of morale passed across all faces.

Except the Phantom Beast. “What, you fuckin’ pussies?,” challenged his unruffled countenance, heedless of the tongue hanging eight inches long out of his parched throat. “Are we gonna turn around now? Go home?”

Now, chastisement at the hands of a hound was simply not gonna cut it. I thought for a moment, then made my pitch. I reasoned that six adults and two dogs, traveling in heavy backpacks, and walking blatantly through somebody’s private property, making no effort to hide or even be the least bit incognito, would be plainly obvious to anybody who saw them as a group off-course, as opposed to a mission to raid or deface anybody’s private weed holdings. And six adults seemed to me to be too many to simply shoot and bury as a precautionary measure. Plus, we had registered our route with the ranger at Big Sur Station; and though the land owners could not know this for sure, the last thing they’d probably want was for a team of investigators to come snooping around their property a few days from now, looking for the bodies of hard-working, tax-paying fun seekers gone missing. No, this line of reasoning was not rock-solid, and offered no assurances; but it was what it was, and the group could see that there was really nothing for it but to, as efficiently and as quickly as possible, find whatever kind of road served this property that we’d wandered onto, and follow it back to Partington Ridge Road, stat. If we’d have to explain ourselves to some gun-toting redneck along the way, well then so be it,- it’d make a great story. Plus, Phantom would never let us live it down if we gave up now.

After another 10 or so feet of climbing, we reached a dirt road, and began to follow it back to the right, in the most likely direction of Partington Ridge Road, as I deemed. As we made our way along the dirt track, we soon passed back over a drainage culvert running beneath the road, through which passed the PVC pipes we’d seen in the clearing below. Shortly thereafter we passed a swimming pool, its winter covering still laid out across its surface, covered in leaves and sticks; and then a few more things suggestive of human habitation: a pair of plastic lawn chairs beside a derelict-looking patio table, a rusty old upended wheelbarrow, and a dilapidated tool shed. Less than a hundred yards later, the road bent around a low hill and passed beneath a beat-up-looking one-story house, set up on the hillside above, some twenty yards back from the road. A short distance beyond the house, we could see salvation: the junction of our dirt driveway with the Partington Ridge Road, from which the former branched off at a hairpin turn of the latter.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s just get to that road; and then we’ll regroup and plan our next move. If anybody comes out of that house, or drives up to us, I’ll do the talking.” We began to walk, quickly and purposefully, along the driveway directly in front of the house, not looking to linger for even a moment until we were off the property.

Just then, almost as if on cue, The Thomas Beast, who had suddenly noticed a small garden, enclosed with chicken-wire, along the side of the road, went tearing away from the group and at once set to systematically dismantling the little garden, digging furiously at it and tearing the wiring to shreds before our very eyes. This within clear line-of-sight of the front door and large living room window of the house, I might add. It was a ruckus born of primal savagery. As Dennis stood there in shock, looking like he was trying to decide whether to try to do something about this or just lay down in the dirt and let death take him at last, Emily started screaming at Phantom, which reawakened Dennis to the reality at hand. He managed to muster the last of his fast-dwindling energy stores, in a last-ditch desperate effort to try to stave off utter catastrophe, if only for the few moments between now and when the inevitable hail of bullets would begin ripping through all of our bodies, coming from the direction of the house above. And somehow he managed to get a handle on the beast. That’s when the front door of the house opened.

Now I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly less terrified when, instead of a poorly-toothed hermit wearing a dirt-bike repairman’s cap and barking at us in a barely-intelligible Arkansan hybrid dialect of Appalachian country-bumpkin yokel-speak, a fairly cute hippie-chick appeared on the front stoop, wearing an expression more of seeming inquisitiveness than one suggestive of unchecked indignation at the blatant affrontery playing out in her front yard,- which would not have been the least bit inappropriate under the circumstances. Behind her stood a dude, in the doorway; and though he didn’t appear as benign as she did, his apparent willingness to remain behind the screen door for even a moment was taken by me as a sign that maybe, just maybe, this situation could be kept from escalating in a direction that all present would come to regret.

At once everybody started yelling. Emily and Dennis shouted profuse apologies to the gal in front of the house, Jeremy and Melissa worked to keep Dicha under wraps (probably unnecessary, but, given the particulars of the situation, the gesture sent the right message to our bemused inquisitor) and I started shouting my explanation for what was going on. Only Shane kept quiet. Smart man.

The girl did not seem angry, or even annoyed- more just concerned, and seeking to understand at once what was happening on her property. After a few moments of chaotic hollering, everybody quieted down; and I explained to the girl that we had been on the DeAngulo Trail, and that it had petered out on us just below her property line, and that we had, not knowing what else to do, decided to as quickly and inconspicuously as possible, cut back to the road. The girl laughed a little, explaining that the De Angulo Trail doesn’t even begin until a ways further on up the mountain, and that we had been apparently just jerking ourselves off on some shitty, unofficial side trail to nowhere. And as for the garden that Phantom had terrorized, she said not to worry about that- it was no big deal, but that this was private property, and we had now to move along at once.

Relief immeasurable flooded over the faces of our battered team of journey-folk; and before walking off, I ventured one more question: Did she know how we would be able to identify the actual DeAngulo Trail, should ever we reach it unscathed? She couldn’t say, and dismissed us with a forgiving smile before retreating back inside her home.

Less than a minute later, we all stood at the hairpin turn of Partington Ridge Road, no longer on the hippie-chick’s property, though we were still on a private road, albeit a private road with an easement for hikers. I reamed Dennis for not having had the T-Beast on leash as we’d passed through that woman’s property; but the truth is that none of us had thought about that when it would have been useful to do so. There hadn’t been time to think. It must be said, though, that Dennis does have a general policy of refusal to shackle his dog when out and about in the wilds of the world. “He’s an un-tamable wild beast who cannot be contained,” he will tell you, and staunchly. However, given the fact that we, as a group, all had a stake in the fate of any one of its members, and also the fact that we were traveling on clearly-signed “Private Property,” through which permission to pass had been granted with no small amount of collective reluctance from the residents of the area, he did finally agree to the team’s newfound insistence that he put the hound on lockdown until we were clear of this compound.

Partington Ridge Road wound its way erratically up and around the protruding bumps and ravines covering the hillside; and it was a long, slow, meandering uphill slog, before we seemed to get anywhere. The views of the ocean had been cut off by groves of trees, as well as by the gently rounded hillside, below.

After a time, two yahoos in a pickup pulled up alongside us and demanded to know what we thought we were doing. “Oh, apparently you didn’t get the memo about the through-hiker easement,” I thought to myself; but held my vitriol in check. The team. Serve the team, and the trip. This isn’t about you, Deek. The voice of reason pleaded with me from deep within my sweltering dome. To that end, I proceeded to explain what we “thought we were doing” in the most unchallenging, non-condescending tone I could muster, thought it hurt me inside to do so; and I hated myself for it for several minutes afterwards. It’s not like I had any cards to play here, though.  After all, I was on somebody else’s property, and I had just been confronted for traipsing across a neighbor’s off-limits terrain, whether or not these yucks were aware that fact. But I do have a bad habit of mouthing off to authority figures who challenge me, regardless of the legitimacy of the challenge. It’s some kind of biological imperative within me to try to force a battle of wits with those who would exert an authoritative hand over me-, as if winning a battle of wits with a cop, witless or otherwise, would ever get me the result I wanted. I’ve gotten myself arrested over nothing on more occasions than I care to recall—usually when a small bit of ass-kissing and authority—acknowledgement would have surely diffused the incident back to the non-event it would have been all along in the hands of most members of the citizenry. But like I said, it’s the way I’m wired: for meaningless self-destruction. Mark my words: one day it will be the death of me. Or of my freedom, anyway. The two pickup yucks were just barely sufficiently satisfied with my explanation; and, after reminding us not to venture forth from the road until we reached our proper trail, drove off up the road, passing through a locked gate and onto a side driveway before passing out of sight completely.

After what seemed like an eternity, we were at last nearing the uppermost end of Partington Ridge Road; and at a switchback of the road—Lord have mercy—there was indeed a trail heading away into the woods. I wasn’t even sure I believed my eyes. Despite our harrowing experiences on trails so far on this trip, there was a renewed sense of collective faith in this particular trail: probably because we now knew that those other trails had been “non-trails” all along, and that this one was an “official” trail. It was now late afternoon, somewhere around 4 PM; and we had only gone, at most, two miles of our planned route, though we’d covered that ground by walking at least twice that distance on false trails and unnecessary roundabout routes.

As soon as we were out of sight of the last of Partington Ridge Road’s private land holdings, we flopped to the ground at the first halfway decent-looking clearing we came to. I dare say our standards for what constituted an acceptable chill spot were at that time quite possibly at the lowest ebb they would ever reach; but regardless, it felt like the dreamiest spot ever when the six of us at last stumbled, like toddlers just learning to walk, into the clearing, and fell to the ground,- only then finding the energy to unclip our hip belts and roll out from underneath our cursed backpacks, which were now soaked with sweat, and thus heavier than they’d been at the outset of this miserable fucker of a day.

We lay strewn about the small clearing like a bunch of lifeless corpses for a good five minutes before even reaching for any devices of sustenance. If you’d walked into that clearing during that five minutes, you’d have thought you’d just stumbled onto the site of a shootout in which all had perished, but for the barking of the Phantom Beast, who surely would not have let your approach go uncontested. Not that anybody came along, nobody did, and before long, life began to slowly flow back into our bodies. For a minute or two, the only sound to be heard, apart from the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bees (the ocean was now long out of earshot, and view), was the whizzing of backpack zippers, as fruits, trail mix, and tragically-melted candy bars were retrieved and set upon voraciously. Passing half an orange to Shane, I scanned the faces of the team: all indescribably filthy with dirt and sweat, and all reporting a level of exasperation far beyond what was acceptable level for being only a couple of miles deep into day one of a three-day backpacking trip—even if much of it was borderline bushwhacking, and already with more hardships and challenges than are typical of even a week-long route through rough terrain. Little did we know it at the time, however; but we didn’t know from bushwhacking.

The DeAngulo Trai—the real DeAngulo Trail—which we were on at long last, was a proper trail, thankfully. Winding its way up the steep hills of Partington Ridge with appropriately-graded switchbacks, and a mostly-level surface, it enabled us to actually make decent time for the first time on the trip. Despite its steady and relentless uphill trajectory, the mere fact that the trail remained consistently passable kept the frowns largely at bay; and we, as a group, truly believed for the first time that we were on the right track. And we were.

Cresting The North Coast Ridge

Partington Ridge juts due south from its parent ridge,thenorthwest/southeast-running North Coast Ridge, spine of the coastal range of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Immediately below the point where it splits off from the North Coast Ridge, Partington Ridge drops off in a dreadfully steep section in which its spine plunges more than 600 feet over a mere half mile. Now, although 600 feet over a half mile would be considered a very steep section of trail anywhere, in most cases such a stretch of trail would at least be served by alternating switchbacks, which, by zigzagging up hill, lessen the vertical toll somewhat, in exchange for a bit more lateral progress. But this nasty little segment of trail skipped the switchbacks altogether, instead just barreling in a straight line directly up along the path of most resistance. To a backpacker ascending the DeAngulo Trail, arriving at the foot of this miserable pitch after having battled through the already exceedingly steep three and a half mile climb from Highway 1 up Partington Ridge can feel like Mother Nature kicking you when you’re down.  So close to being finished with this unforgiving ascent—and now this? What is this- a last body-blow from the mountain? A final bitch-slap by the cruel hand of fate? A desperate 11th-hour bid by the gods to hinder those who would conquer the ridge? It’s almost enough to make you throw down your backpack and swear off the wilderness forever. But then you look at your map and realize that, if you can just find the strength to suffer through this one last chamber of hell, you will at once, and at last, find yourself standing on the ridgeline that you have been seeking all day long.

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The stretch is so steep that I can’t even imagine anybody successfully negotiating a descent of it (bound to a heavy pack, no less) without promptly slipping onto their backside and being immediately resigned to simply riding the rubble to the foot of the pitch, 600 feet below. By contrast, to ascend this stretch is an exercise in near-futility. For every step you take upwards, you slide back down to almost exactly where you began your step, gaining mere inches, despite having invested a full stride’s worth of energy in the endeavor. In this way, the punishing last section of the climb up to the North Coast Ridge is about as big of an ass-kicker as you’re gonna find anywhere, especially coming, as it does, hard on the heels of the 2,500-foot brutality that precedes it (even if you don’t fuck it up royally, as we did). The only thing you really have going for you by the time you get to this point in the climb is the knowledge that, at the end of this section, you top out, and thus cease to climb for the time being. And that’s a powerful motivator to folks who have been slogging uphill in the hot sun for five hours, begging for the mercy that only a ridge-top or peak can promise, or deliver on.

Shane and I led the charge up the exceedingly steep home stretch of Partington Ridge. Although in my periphery I could tell that we had climbed high enough and steeply enough that we were now well above any and all of the trees on the ridge; as well as the relatively level tablelands below, on which sit the settlements we had passed through earlier, I refused to turn around and look back at the view that I knew now awaited my eyes. For this I would wait until I could see down the other side of this god-forsaken ridge. There would be no payout for me until the work was done, I insisted to myself. The promise of this panoramic view of the great blue vast unknown below would be the well from which I would draw the energy required to gain the final pitch. If I turned around now, I’d never make it all the way to the top, I reasoned.

And so it was that, after a leg-busting day to rival just about any that either of us had ever had, Shane and I at last took those final few steps which would wrap up, once and for all, our long ascent of the Santa Lucia front range. We found ourselves standing at a scenic overlook along the well-groomed dirt of the North Coast Ridge Road. The first thing I did was slip out of my backpack and stand it in the soft grass by the side of the road. Immediately, the pack flopped over onto its side and rolled into a more “comfortable” position—prostrate in the grass. I guess my trusty backpack was as tired as I was. My second move was to deal with my crippling thirst, which had been harassing me since before I’d even reached the base of the final 600-foot pitch. I fumbled about with my hands, trying to release the water bottle of warm Gatorade that had been pinned underneath the pack when it rolled over. The effort required to roll the pack over, so that I might be able to get at the bottle, was nearly sufficiently daunting to cause me to abandon the task altogether; but discovering some heretofore hidden energy reserve, I made a withdrawal, grabbed the dead-weight of the pack, and heaved it over onto its side, and got the damn thing done. And a moment later, I was thankful that my throat had bullied me into it.

The gang taking a much needed break.

Before seating myself in the grass to drink in the 180-degree panoramic ocean view (and the warm Gatorade) and wait for the others, I turned to greet for the first time the newly-revealed scenery now visible to the east. The view to the north was dominated by Mt Olmstead, just a mile and a half distant, rising another 500 feet higher than the ridge we were standing on. Five and a half miles away to the northeast, over and behind several smaller intervening ridges, loomed the South Ventana Cone, its apex scraping the sky at 4,965 feet. Our route over the next day and a half would take us on a bearing more or less directly towards the South Ventana Cone, but would swing away north and west just after reaching its lower flanks. Immediately to the east lay the Logwood Creek Watershed area, down into which looked the view in that direction. Due east, and also five and a half miles away, stood Black Cone Peak, a 4,535-footer on whose northwestern and southwestern flanks, respectively, originate the headwaters of the North and South Forks of the Big Sur River. To the southeast, the short-range view was obscured by a rise in the North Coast Ridge, which blocked any view of the lands beyond. To continue hiking eastward from here would require descending into the Logwood Creek watershed, which feeds into the South Fork of the Big Sur at Mocho Creek Camp, our day’s destination—still a good five miles deeper into the backcountry.

Shane and I sat relaxing in the grass near the top of the DeAngulo Trail, watching as, one-by-one, backpacks bobbed into view over the last rise in the trail and slowly made their way up to us. When the group had finally collected itself at the ridge, we all sat down to enjoy a nice extended rest, our reward for a hard-won ascent.

Looking back over Partington Ridge, we beheld 70 miles of clear unbroken ocean, shimmering blue in the reflected light of the westering sun. Far out at sea—maybe 30 miles or so offshore—three behemoth shipping liners proceeded in a straight line, probably twenty miles apart, crawling imperceptibly northward, bound for the Golden Gate, that great gap in the coastal mountains that serves as the outlet for San Francisco Bay, 120 crow-miles away to the north. To the northwest, the steep sides of the North Coast Ridge could be seen dropping away precipitously to the sea as far as Pfeiffer Ridge, which bulged ocean-ward at Big Sur, ten miles away, hindering further views in that direction. The North Coast Ridge also ran away southeastward in a line of serrated prominences, peak after peak looming high above the Pacific, until the ridge’s distant summits were blended indistinguishably with those of the South Coast Ridge, which then continued south-eastward along the coastline until its furthest peaks were lost to the horizon in that direction. Immediately in front of us, and 3,000 feet below, the Big Sur Highway was hidden from us by the intervening mass of Partington Ridge.

Into The Awry

It was pushing 6:00 PM; and we still had almost five miles to go. And we were all pretty exhausted. But at least the day’s remaining up and down would be more or less negligible, compared to what we had just done. Weary, but nevertheless resolved, we forced ourselves to stand up and shoulder our heavy packs. We were in it to win it, as they say.

Our route followed the North Coast Ridge southward for about a half a mile, and then followed a spur road that broke away to the southeast—inland—off of the ridge road. The spur road contoured gently downward for another half mile to Cold Spring Camp, which sat along the rim of Logwood Creek Canyon. Here the dirt road ended in a cul-de-sac, and our route continued on as the Big Sur Trail. Rather than dropping down to meet Logwood Creek, four hundred feet below, the trail kept a high line, contouring around the upper Logwood Creek watershed area and then following it back around to the far side of the canyon, from whence it proceeded now northward along the western side of Logwood Ridge.

For awhile, the going was uneventful, and it was starting to look as if we would bust out the remaining three miles to Mocho Camp with little difficulty, even though we all knew we’d most likely be walking that last stretch in the dark. No matter, though- we all had headlamps with us. But about a mile beyond Cold Spring Camp, out of nowhere the trail suddenly became exceedingly overgrown, as if at some point trail maintenance had been for some reason abruptly halted at that specific, seemingly arbitrary, point along the trail. With difficulty, I managed to force my way through a tightly-woven latticework of overgrown bushes barring the trail, in the hope that I would find this to be just one lone obstacle, with clear trail on the other side. Instead, I found another cumbersome web of branches and shrubs, not twenty feet further on up the trail. There was nothing for it but to push onward, we all more or less agreed; and so we began hacking our way through the overgrowth perforce. Many of the snarls were so thickly tangled that it took a valiant effort just to fight one’s way through them. Each time one of us would escape from the clutches of the bushes on their far side, the branches would invariably snap back, like a spring-loaded mouse-trap, into the face of the person following immediately behind.

In the face of this prolonged mess of middle-growth, our average pace of progress slowed to about a third of that which we’d been maintaining since gaining the ridge; and these conditions continued to persist for the better part of the next two miles. After awhile, the trail dropped over to the east side of Logwood Ridge and began descending into the chapparal and pine forests above Mocho Creek. Darkness was quickly enveloping the forest; and heavy leaf-cover on the ground made it increasingly difficult to see for sure where the trail was—even in those rare spots where there weren’t thick bushes barring our progress. We soldiered on though, foregoing our headlamps for the time being in order to keep making progress. More than once, however, I realized that I was no longer on the trail, and had to backtrack until I found it. The shapes of trees and land features grew increasingly indistinct in the gathering night, until finally we could go no further without the help of artificial light. As we paused to dig out our headlamps, it hit us just how dark it had gotten. We could barely even find our lights in the deep blackness consuming the forest. I reassured the team that Mocho Creek Camp lay below us, and could be reached without any further climbing—it was just a matter of whether or not we could endure long enough to reach it.

A short while later, the cluster-fuck of overgrowth ended just as abruptly and without obvious explanation as it had begun; and the trail was now free again of significant obstacles to progress. It was like when you’re stuck in a molasses-thick traffic jam for an age; and then suddenly the traffic starts moving again, though you haven’t passed anything that satisfies as a sufficient explanation for the backup you’ve just been in. Not that I normally creep along through traffic jams hoping to at some point come upon a scene of unspeakable carnage—just so that I don’t have to go on wondering later what the hell the backup was all about. But sometimes I do. That said, there is a natural need, in a rational mind, to at least come to whatever level of understanding is feasible, as regard the whats and whys of the seemingly inexplicable circumstances affecting us all on a regular basis. In this case, however, it seemed doubtful that any decent explanation was soon to be forthcoming. We walked on.

First Night’s Chumpground

Clear trail or not, at this point it was almost 9 PM, and we were all running on fumes. Even Phantom had long ceased to bolt about, and was now quietly trotting along between Dennis and Emily. At some point somebody started to melt down from exhaustion; and it quickly became clear that we’d be better off making camp sooner than later. Screw Mocho Creek Camp. The next spot we saw that could even remotely pass for a campsite would be our home for the night. The group trudged on in silence- overworked, underfed, muscles and bones aching, all.

A short distance later, the trail crossed a small, unnamed tributary stream of the South Fork Big Sur River. This was the first running water we’d passed all day. I stopped to splash my face; and as Dennis caught up to me a few moments later, he suggested rather insistently that we cease walking immediately and make camp here for the night, citing the water source as the hopeful scale-tipping factor in favor of his suggestion. At once I could clearly perceive that there was no fighting this virtual decree, even though there was nothing about this spot, apart from the creek, to recommend it as a place to spend the night, other than the fact that we’d been marching along for hours, and it was getting on time to hang it up for the day. Anyway, it’s not like I had the power (or desire) to order anybody to take any further step against their inclination. We were all adults here; and if the prevailing sentiment was to bivouac here for the night, well then I could get with the program. It’s not exactly as if I wanted to keep walking either, though, given my druthers, I would have probably opted to press on towards our goal—if for no other reason than to be able, at some point, to enjoy the satisfaction of having made it, by hook or crook, to the destination for which we had set out that afternoon. But that was a gamble nobody wanted to take at this point, and quite understandably. On the other hand, I did feel that Wilderness Rule #1 was applicable in this situation: Know when you’ve been beat, and adjust accordingly. So we threw down our packs and set to making camp.

You should have seen what the six of us were willing to call a “campsite,” for our purposes on this particular occasion. It goes a long way to illustrate just how dire the need to stop moving can get for weary adventurers, under certain circumstances. Four tents found their way into use that night, none on level ground, and some straddling mossy depressions under which flowed tiny side-channels of the stream. If there was a tent in the bunch that had all four corners on the earth, and its floor with consistent purchase on the ground, I never heard about it. As for me, I squeezed my tent into a space no more than two thirds of its own width, with my bed laid squarely across the middle of the trail, blocking any and all passage. Not that anybody was gonna be coming along or anything.

None of us had the energy, or desire, to even consider building a fire; and even if any of us had felt so inclined, there was nowhere to build one. The entire area was covered in thick, dry, leafy undergrowth; and to start a fire here, with no fire ring, would have almost surely resulted in a forest fire. Instead, we sat around grumbling irritably, as we waited for water to boil for our beef stroganoff and pasta primavera backpacker meals. After wolfing down our dinners, which we did not so much out of a desire to eat as out of a collective recognition that we would all need the sustenance for tomorrow, we passed around a few joints, reflecting on the day’s hardships and speculating uselessly on what tomorrow might hold for us. Before going to bed, I made some hot chocolate, though the night was not all that cold. The hot chocolate endeavored, albeit weakly, to fill the hole left by the absence of a campfire.

We certainly hoped that we were through the last of those long stretches of bushwhacktastic trail that had made today such an ordeal, and that starting tomorrow our trail would continue on as a well-maintained route. But there was no way to predict it- one way or the other. By 10:30 PM we had all retired to our respective ramshackle makeshift quarters, and closed our eyes to see if we might be able to find a bit of rest among the roots, stumps, mosses, and fungi all about. The last sounds I remember hearing that night, apart from the pleasant gurgling of the little stream over which we had barbarically made our temporary homes, were the sporadic fits of exasperated laughter emanating from behind the nylon walls of the various tents of our most ridiculous encampment, as the members of the team finally, after a brutal day, found their proper moments to reflect on the situation at hand.

Read the whole story…

TRIP REPORT: Big Sur Death March—Day 2

TRIP REPORT: Big Sur Death March—Day 3

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