TRIP REPORT: Big Sur Death March—Day 3

June 18, 2013 | Adventures, Trip Reports


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

North Fork Big Sur River Camp to Big Sur Station

The morning dawned bright and sunny, and thanks to our luxurious campsite—as it indeed seemed to be when compared to the previous night’s meager encampment—we slept in, remaining in our tents until the sun’s rays drove us forth like Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping that witch’s oven. We made a breakfast of freeze-dried scrambled eggs with bacon, supplementing that with energy bars and trail mix. After refilling our water bottles at the riverside with our trusty Katahdin pumps, we began to break camp, though we did this at a pace that suggested that we were all once again aware of the fact that we were essentially in the middle of an overgrown wilderness with no decent trails nearby. So we weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to get walking—though there was nothing for it.

We got walking by 10:30 or so, and since the North Fork was the very first thing we had to contend with, I waited to lace up my hiking boots until clearing the ford. I lugged my pack to where the trail disappeared into the river, and dropped it there for a moment. I stuffed my socks inside my hiking boots, and tossed the boots across the river—only about twenty feet wide at this spot. Heaving my pack back up onto my aching shoulders, and picking up my walking stick, I stepped barefoot into the water of the fast-flowing river. The bite of the water’s cold was shockingly virile; and I immediately perceived that I must execute this crossing as quickly as possible, lest my ankles give way beneath me from the bitter cold of the river, landing me in the middle of the rushing current—body and pack drenched, and therefore much heavier. I picked my way across the riverbed, choosing my steps carefully, and leaning on my walking stick as needed; but in spite of my concerted efforts to find a decent line across the current, my feet kept finding these inhospitable little crevices between rocks in which to lodge themselves.

More than once, I took a step forward only to have my planted foot slip out from under me, or wedge deeper in between two sharp rocks, making it nearly impossible to maintain balance—but I was not letting this pack take on water, whatever it took. At one point in the crossing I did in fact lose my balance and begin to tip over; but in a desperate attempt to remain upright, I thrust my walking stick into the streambed before me, and planted it in the sand—or whatever was down there. As my body tipped forward to bring me down in the icy current, I fell willfully onto the point of my erect walking stick, sustaining a painful body-blow to the gut in the process. This was still preferable to a full-body soak, however; and with the stick’s help I managed to redistribute my weight and regain my proper balance, extracting my foot from its crevice between the rocks and finding a patch of submerged sand to place it in next. From there I was able to walk out of the water on the far side of the river. I dropped my pack, fetched my boots, and suited back up, advising the others to just accept that they would be getting their feet soaked, and wisely forego the near-disastrous barefoot crossing that I had just barely executed without injury.

All safely across the river at last, we resumed the march, leaving the North Fork of the Big Sur River behind us for good. The trail wound pleasantly enough up along Cienega Creek, and for the most part the obstacles were manageable along this stretch. After a short while we reached Cienega Camp; and, boy, were we ever glad we hadn’t pressed on to reach it yesterday. Though it was a named campsite on the map, this spot would have been hard-pressed to support even a single tent. Like the first night’s camp, the site was served right through its middle with a tiny tributary stream; and much of the pittance of level ground on hand was far too wet for any dry person to ever want to lay down on it. Another one of those derelict fireplaces, crumbled and broken, sat nearby, covered in such a thick overgrowth of moss and poison oak that I almost didn’t even see it.

Speaking of poison oak, it was right around this time that I started to feel the onset of a nasty bout, undoubtedly acquired somewhere back on Partington Ridge, two days earlier. I tried to put it out of mind.

In an effort to keep things moving, I confidently boasted to the team that the Pine Ridge Trail was now only a mile away; and with the way the day’s walk had gone thus far, it seemed that we should be there in an hour at most, as I reported. There was only 500 feet of climbing remaining to us before we would drop over the ridge and onto the “wilderness freeway”! We stepped across the piddling stream of Cienega Creek, ready to take on what looked to be a relatively benign last ascent to Pine Ridge, and salvation.

Death March (Slight Return)

Immediately beyond Cienega Creek, the trail began to climb more steeply, as expected. What wasn’t expected, however, was that the trail would almost instantly dissolve into a clusterfuck of weeds and briars, its course barely discernible through the tangled mess. Of all the shit that we’d encountered so far on this death-march, this least resembled a passable trail. At least with the fallen trees yesterday, you could say “Well, there’s the trail—there’s just debris all over it.” Here, on the other hand, it was more like: “How does this happen to this section of the trail, while 30 yards back, the route is relatively free and clear of hindrances?” But the answer was that we were now, for the first time on this outing, on an east-facing slope; and because of this eastward aspect, the slope gets all kinds of good light in the spring and summer, facilitating robust growth. This thing was gonna be a whore to get up.

Though the itching of my poison oak had begun to molest me with increasing vigor, there was little that could be done about it at the moment; and so I did my best to try and cast it from my mind. Anyhow, there was nothing for it; so, empowered to some degree by the knowledge that we were almost through the soup once and for all, I just kind of stepped up onto the cloud of stinging, stabbing shrubbery and hurled myself headlong into its midst. My legs felt it immediately, sliced and pierced by thorns at every flex of a muscle. “No matter, it must be gotten through and there’s only one way to achieve this,” I thought. Doing my best to wholly ignore the constant assault of the hostile overgrowth all around me, I charged on through, refusing to acknowledge the lateral incisions being inflicted across my legs with each step I took.

After a few steps, I paused to catch my breath, exhausted from the exertion of forcing my way through this formidable barrier of dry, brushy, spiked calamity. Some winged insect or another, after buzzing around my head for a moment, called out to his mates, alerting them to the smorgasbord awaiting them where I stood; and soon there was a whole swarm of bugs feasting on my epidermis. At least they weren’t bees, although bees were not far from my mind at that moment. I was acutely aware of how fucked I’d be if I happened upon any kind of wasp habitation: nowhere to run, no water easily accessible. The mid-day sun roasted my face, legs, and upper arms. I should have put the detachable legs back on these shorts before diving into this quagmire—that was dumb. But there was no way I was taking off the pack to address the matter now. I stood for a moment in useless trepidation, looking back down the trail at Jeremy, who was the foremost of my trailing team members, as he mulled how to proceed. This was gonna really bite for the dogs, too, I recognized. At least the humans could keep half of their bodies above the briar-fest—the dogs would have to swim right through the heart of it. Even the Phantom Beast seemed un-inclined to hurl himself headlong into the mess, judging by the fact that he had not overtaken me as of yet.

The Super-Mojo

Another moment of hesitation and then it hit me: “Fuck this,” I muttered to myself defiantly, and resolved at once to just beat my way up to the ridge-line like an untamed wild man, there would be time to address my wounds later. After all, the Elf was a nurse; and we did have at least one first aid kit with us, though I questioned whether or not it was sufficiently stacked to tend to us all. Regardless, this shit had to be put to bed, and fast. I hurled myself forward at double-speed, and began to fight my way in earnest up the trail.

Often times, when on a backcountry outing gone awry—or one not so much awry as just excessively challenging—as soon as the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel shows itself, a sort of super-mojo can infuse the determined hiker with the requisite energy boost to plow ahead through the remaining interval of rough going. I think of the trip Dennis and I did, five or six years ago, through Zion National Park’s famed Narrows, with another friend and our respective girlfriends: sixteen miles downstream along the North Fork of the Virgin River, deep in southern Utah’s rugged canyon country. Walking on a trail that at first ran alongside the river, but eventually dissolved into a full-on water route after only four or five miles, we battled our way downstream for two long, exhausting days. At some point early on in the second day, we found ourselves walled-in, with no dry line that could be taken along the side of the river, whose raging waters now filled the entire width of the narrow canyon. Compelled to literally jump headlong, body and pack, into the icy water of what was by that point a fast-flowing river, and float downstream on the frigid current which coursed through the bottom of a canyon 2,000 feet deep and as narrow as 10 feet wide at points, we spent the rest of the day soaked to the bone, gear and all.

By late afternoon on the second day, we were all getting really, really cold. At a certain point a few miles from the end of the run, we rode the current over a waterfall—over which return would have been damn-near impossible—and fell several feet before splashing down into a pool below. As soon as we were downstream of the waterfall, we were sharing the river with throngs of day-hikers fighting their way upstream from the Temple of Sinawa parking area, where our cars were waiting for us.

Now, by the time we got over that waterfall, we could at long last almost taste the freedom of cars, hotel rooms, burgers, laundry, and beds just a few miles ahead; and this was enough to infuse us each with the aforementioned super-mojo. In our newfound turbo-mode, we proceeded to stomp our way straight down the middle of the Virgin River; though at most points along this stretch it was almost three feet deep, more than a hundred feet wide, and carrying a very insistent current over a bed of large, rounded boulders, lurking below the surface, strewn from canyon wall to canyon wall, lethally slick, and hidden beneath a layer of frothing, choppy gray-white melt-water. Whereas, earlier in the trip, such obstacles would have slowed our progress to a near-crawl, we were now far too driven by our collective resolve to get ourselves once and for all out of this cold, windy slot canyon to even consider allowing the slippery rocks underneath the surface to foil our determined footsteps any longer. Thus, as we high-stepped it down the center of the river, we must have appeared to the hordes of day-hikers hugging the canyon walls and stepping reluctantly through the shallower areas at the river’s edge as either super-human, or more plausibly, folks who’d found a magically clear easy line down the middle of the riverbed.

As a result, day-hikers started making their way out to the middle of the river, looking to follow in our footsteps, since we were quite visibly proceeding without any apparent difficulty whatsoever. As I, Dennis, and the others stomped along, fully upright and moving at a deceptively brisk pace, I turned to look back upstream from a bend in the river not more than a half mile from our take-out point, to see ten or fifteen luckless pedestrians fumbling along in our wake, slipping and falling with every step, wishing they had remained by the river’s edge. The problem for these hapless day hikers was: we had our super-mojos in full effect; and they didn’t. Exactly how they thought we were managing to negotiate this stretch of wild river with such aplomb, I’ll never know.

Y’see, the super-mojo is not something that you can simply call up at will, without having earned it. It is born of long stretches of hardship, when dues to the wilderness have been long paid in full, coupled with a need, in the home-stretch, for a final turbo boost to get you free and clear once and for all. That’s the only way it ever happens.

Big_Sur_Ventana_Wilderness_Day_3_02Anyhoo…there I was, fighting my way up the final pitch of the Big Sur Trail, moving like a man on a mission, super-mojo fully engaged, and leaving the others in the dust. Occasional shouts of “Fuck!!!” could be heard at intervals, emanating from down-trail; and at one point I heard my name being hollered from hundreds of feet below. I paused, shouting in response, and I could faintly hear Dennis asking where I was. “Keep blasting through!” I shouted as loudly as I could. “I’m almost at the ridge! I’ll wait for you at the trail junction!” I heard a muffled response from below that sounded enough like “Okay” to allow me to press on without concern that anybody on my team was in serious trouble. “Either way,” I reasoned to myself, “if there is trouble below, I can be of more assistance to the team after I drop my pack on the Pine Ridge Trail and head back unfettered.” That’s how close I was to the ridge.

Redwood Creek Re-Boot

Some two miserable hours after stepping gingerly across the gurgling Cienega Creek, I at last crested Pine Ridge. From here I could see the Pine Ridge Trail, not more than twenty feet below, running a smooth course down along the north side of the ridge. With unmeasured jubilation, I tumbled down those last twenty vertical feet to the end of the Big Sur Trail. At last I stood on the Pine Ridge Trail: the on-ramp to the wilderness freeway of which I had been speaking since mid-day yesterday. Casting my pack to the ground with extreme prejudice, as though it were somehow responsible for the 15-mile death-march from which I had just emerged, I yanked my water bottle out from its sheath and drank like there was no tomorrow.

As I drank with relish from my water bottle, I looked both up and down the Pine Ridge Trail, and thought back to the last time I had passed this way, four years earlier, on an east-west traverse of the range. A small wooden signpost, stuck in the ground near the junction of the two trails, read on one side: “Pine Ridge Trail,” with a double-ended arrow etched into its wooden side, and on the other side: “Big Sur Trail,” with a similarly-etched arrow pointing up and to the right, towards the crest of the ridge, twenty feet above me. I grabbed my water bottle and climbed back up the twenty or so feet to the ridge-crest, to see how the others were faring.

Standing at the crest, I looked down into the canyon of Cienega Creek, but neither saw nor heard any sign of my crew. I gave a holler of “Wilderness Freeway!!!” for anyone who might like to know that there was actually an end to the misery, just ahead. A moment later I was startled by a nearby rustling of bushes; and when I whipped around to face the sound, I saw that it was Shane, surfacing at the crest to greet me,himself having caught mojo fever and ripped the remaining distance of the climb just as I had. His face, arms, and legs were filthy with dirt and blood; but for all that, he sure seemed glad to finally be at the ridge; though he wisely withheld his outward show of jubilation until he could confirm that what he had arrived at did in fact represent, for real, a significant-enough improvement on the preceding terrain so as to warrant celebration. Soon enough, though, Shane was beaming just as much as I was, as he stood on the Pine Ridge Trail just below me, with his backpack on the ground at his side, and the bottom of his water bottle pointed skyward.

We waited at the junction until the others slowly trickled over the ridgeline; and all were immensely relieved to find themselves at last standing on what looked like a proper trail, more or less for the first time on this trip. The sun was pitiless though, and there was no shade to be found anywhere close at hand; and the exhausted faces and vigorously panting snouts all around me underscored this fact, further emphasizing the need to find some tree-cover as soon as possible. I pointed to a canyon, about a half mile down the trail, the tops of whose trees could be seen just barely poking their upper reaches above the intervening terrain. “That there be Redwood Creek Canyon,” I announced. “It is there that the wilderness freeway truly begins,” though the trail on which we stood was still in far-better condition than any we had yet to encounter. “If you guys think you can make it down to there, we will be able to refill our water bottles, dunk our heads, and take a good long rest beneath the shade of a lush redwood grove.”

The team, though battered and broken, was game for this final push to a proper resting spot; and we set off for Redwood Creek Canyon at once. I practically danced down the remaining half mile to the long coveted oasis, following the winding contours of the Pine Ridge Trail with a lightness of step that had up until now eluded me on this journey; and save for a few minor washouts, the route was hindrance-free. After no more than 25 minutes of descending, I found myself stumbling up to the edge of Redwood Creek. For a moment I compared myself, however inappropriately, to the guys in that movie “Alive” who, after their soccer team’s plane goes down high in the Chilean Andes in the deep snows of early springtime, wait and wait for a rescue that never comes, resolving at last to hike down out of the mountains in an attempt to try to secure the rescue of their surviving teammates, who are all still marooned back up in the snowy high-country, having been driven to nauseating ends just to survive as long as they had. There is a scene in the movie where the two determined men, after an unimaginable, many-day ordeal, stumble up to a rushing creek in the middle of a green forest, the deadly glaciers and biting winds of the upper Andes far above and behind them at long last. That’s the picture I had in my head as I walked the few final steps down to Redwood Creek, albeit after a mere two days of hardship on a way less dramatic scale, and after, admittedly, far less of a high-stakes trial than those South American soccer players had endured. A bit melodramatic? I suppose so. I guess you had to be there.

The first thing I did was rock hop across the creek and drop my pack in a well-groomed, gorgeous little campsite by the riverside. The site was framed on three sides by the massive trunks of fallen redwoods. A large, well kempt rock fire ring occupied the center of the site, with plenty of room for bodies to maneuver on all sides of it; and an iron grill-grating lay propped against the side of the fire ring, patiently awaiting its next round of Italian sausages. Three lofty redwood trees shot straight up out of the ground along the fringes of the campsite, reaching far up into the forest canopy, hundreds of feet above. Nearby, several other quality campsites peppered the western bank of Redwood Creek. From the eastern banks of the creek arose the foot of Pine Ridge, which climbed steeply up and away from the river as the slope down which I had just come. These were the first truly decent campsites we’d seen on the whole trip, though there was nobody camped here. In fact, we hadn’t seen a living soul since talking to those two good ole’ boys in the pickup truck back on Partington Ridge, a thousand years ago.

Turning from the happy little campsite, I walked the few feet back to the creek crossing, nearly falling willfully headlong into its cool waters. I lay on the ground beside the creek, in a position like I was about to start doing push-ups, and sank my grizzled dome into the current. It was grand. At once I felt the cares of the past few days wash away from me; and when I rose to my feet, I relished the icy water dripping all down my neck and back, into my shirt and down my midriff. I then retreated to the cozy campsite, leaned back against my pack, and settled in to wait for the team. As I lay there, pleased beyond telling to finally be sedentary, and comfortable, I quietly marveled at the way the sun’s refracted beams, filtered through the upper canopy far above, cast select areas of the grove in majestic angelic light; though, thankfully, the spot where I lay was bathed in precious shade.

Shane came along just as I was pulling my dripping head from the creek; and not long after him came the hounds who, having sensed the presence of water from some ways back up the trail, had promptly left their loved ones in the dust and made quick tracks down to the creek. As I sat there in the shade of the redwoods, I observed Phantom standing in the middle of the stream, pausing between hearty gulps of creek-water to look at me, his messy gray/black beard dripping joyously with beads of the life-sustaining elixir. He was exactly where he wanted to be. Dicha stood close at hand, also knee-deep in the creek, drinking voraciously. The rest of the team followed a couple minutes later; and we all settled in for a nice long siesta in the pleasant shade of the warm afternoon.

The Wilderness Freeway

When the time finally came to motor, we were all feeling immensely rejuvenated; and it was with minimal grumbling that we re-shouldered our packs and set off on the remaining two miles to our intended camp at Sykes Hot Springs. It was about 3 PM; and we anticipated being set up in camp in less than two hours.

The wilderness freeway delivered on its promise (or, my promise, anyway, no need to hold the trail accountable for my boasting). Although the trail did soon climb up out of the canyon of Redwood Creek into drier, more exposed terrain, its surface was smooth, wide, and cleared of all obstacles throughout. A profound glee overtook everyone in our group; and we made our way along the trail with a spring in our collective step hitherto unseen on this adventure. Folks were singing, laughing, and talking vibrantly. And dammit if we hadn’t earned the right.

We dropped down into Sykes Camp an hour and a half after leaving Redwood Creek Camp, and dropped our packs on a wide, sandy beach along the northern shore of the Big Sur River, its North and South Forks having joined their waters just a short distance upstream of this spot, around a bend and out of sight from here.

Sykes Hot Springs— the springs themselves—were located a bit downstream from our resting place, and were reachable via a moderately difficult, largely off-trail route which required crossing the river twice in order to get around a couple of intervening impassable headlands, around which the river bent sharply. The prospect of negotiating this stretch, coupled with the fact that the day was a 90-degree swelter-fest, left the group unanimously unenthused about fighting their way through to a series of hot tubs. Plus, we were all so excited to finally be on a good trail, and out of the proverbial frying pan, that we ended up deciding to continue hiking onwards until our strength should fail us, as the allure of our soft beds was now hard upon us. It was ten miles to Big Sur Station from here; and though we had already come a brutal five miles today through unspeakably rugged terrain, everyone felt that they had it in them to press on. And at any rate, I knew there were three or four good campsites in between here and Big Sur Station, so choosing to trek on from here did not carry the threat of potentially over-committing ourselves to a renewed death-march. If we should end up running out of steam before reaching the trailhead at Big Sur Station, we could simply camp at one of these sites, enjoy a good night’s rest on the soft ground, and have a short, easy walk back out to the world of Man in the morning.

The Last Leg

A short distance downstream from our resting place, the Pine Ridge Trail crossed the Big Sur River, leaving it for the last time; though the trail would, after an initial climb of several hundred feet up from the river, maintain a fairly-consistent high line along the southern wall of the Big Sur Canyon, most of the way back to Big Sur Station; and nearly all of this route would be under the thick shade of the forest.

Fording the river, we at once began to climb up into the cool, shady forest which would shelter us for the better part of the last ten miles. We rolled along purposefully for a few hours, eventually stopping around 5:30 PM to rest and consult with one another at Terrace Creek Camp—another idyllic little campsite set in a cool, shady little hollow, beside a tumbling tributary creek of the Big Sur River. Although the site was free of other campers, we were now a mere five easy miles from the trailhead; and the aforementioned super-mojo was once again giving lift to the wings of one and all. We decided to go for the gold.

The last five miles of the trip flew by as if we passed them in a dream; and right around 8 PM we found ourselves, though now exceedingly tired, no worse for the wear, and at last walking out into the trailhead parking lot at Big Sur Station. The trip was done; and we had made it through- beaten, but ultimately relatively unscathed, one and all. From pitiless climb, through merciless death-march, and finally along the wilderness freeway back to quasi-civilization, we had persevered through about as rough a 27-mile stretch as you could ever want to cover in three days.

The men-folk dropped their packs and, leaving the ladies and the hounds to stretch their weary appendages at the trailhead, set off to retrieve the vehicles. Skirting the rutted shoulder of Highway 1 in the fast-fading daylight, we made it relatively painlessly up to the Pathfinder, which was parked a half mile or so up the road, and jumped in it to go fetch the other cars at the foot of Partington Ridge, ten miles south.

Back To The City

Day_03_05By 9:30 PM, we were all back in our respective cars, caravanning northward on Highway 1 back towards the city. Although every last one of us was ravenous almost to the point of delirium, the late hour left us with a paucity of options on where to get a proper meal; and so we forewent dinner on the road in exchange for a more expeditious return to our respective homes. The dogs lay like carcasses in the back seats of their carriages, asking nothing more than to be left to their rest. At this point you would have been hard-pressed to get even Phantom to take you up on an offer to go for a walk.

Slowly, the two-lane blacktop, rugged mountains, and coastal vistas of the Big Sur Coast gave way to the multi-lane divided highways and shopping centers of Greater Monterey; and an hour after that, the twinkling lights of the San Francisco Bay area greeted us as we descended northward out of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and into the urban ring which we called home.

Passing into the San Francisco city limits sometime after midnight, I dropped Shane off at his home, and made straight for my girlfriend’s place. Thankfully, she was already asleep when I came in, because I didn’t have the juice to tell this story just yet. After raiding her fridge to appease my gut-busting hunger, I stripped off my filthy hiking clothes and jumped into the shower. With the gloriously hot water beating down upon my aching neck and back, I stood there and just let the dirt and grime of the trip wash away from me, a hard-earned catharsis that was most welcome, though the hot water did seem to rouse my poison oak from its forced (by sheer force of mental will) dormancy. Whatever, I’d worry about the rash tomorrow, or the next day, I told myself, while kind of absently examining the many cuts on my face in the bathroom mirror. Soon losing faux-interest in my various battle-scars, however, I reached for my toothbrush to wrap up the pre-bedtime ritual. Three minutes later, as I slid quietly into the bed beside Katherine, she lifted her head sleepily and asked how the trip had been. “Awesome,” I said. “I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow,” and lay my head down on the pillow next to hers.

And you know what? The trip was awesome. So it hadn’t exactly played out the way I’d imagined it would, or had planned for it to; but a liberal dose of the unexpected, even if it serves to complicate your trip in the near term, can be a very good thing every now and again, serving as a reminder of one of the things that makes setting out into the backcountry so irresistible to me in the first place: that just when you think you’ve got the wilderness all figured out, some unforeseen development comes along to up-end your expectations and force a re-boot of your plans. And that’s when true discovery becomes possible, if not inevitable.


I would learn after the trip from a ranger that the Big Sur Trail had been last maintained at some point during the Clinton years, W having, unsurprisingly, so mercilessly slashed the Forest Service’s budget so as to make it utterly impossible to properly maintain more than a couple of the trails in the Ventana Wilderness. As a result, the overseers of the wilderness had felt compelled to concentrate what little funds they did receive on maintenance of the westernmost 12 miles of the Pine Ridge Trail. It was far and away the most popular route in the wilderness, leading as it does from Big Sur Station out to Sykes Hot Springs, recreational crown jewel of the Ventana Wilderness. Better to have one trail in pristine shape than 40 trails all equally hurting, and barely, if at all, passable, went the wisdom.

The Big Sur Trail, I am told, has since been maintained.

TRIP REPORT: Big Sur Death March (Day 1)

TRIP REPORT: Big Sur Death March (Day 2)

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