San Rafael Peak
28 September 2002
By: Sandy Sperling, George Wysup, Ray Riley
The Great San Rafael Peak Oktoberfest
Sandy Sperling, Sandy Burnside, and I led a trip to San Rafael Peak (6640+') as part of the great Oktoberfest (Septemberfest?) weekend. 24 hikers showed at Mutau trailhead for a 10 mile trek to the summit and back. As the hike commenced at 9:30 a.m., many of us already had visions of food, booze, and naughty frolicking at Mil Potrero Park after the hike. Well, not Sandy Sperling, whose thoughts were on her finishing the HPS List on this San Rafael climb, and who isn't much for boozing in any case.
The first part of the hike is an easy trail sprint to a saddle at 5729', where we rested, snacked, and considered the cross country bush whack to come. The route turned out to be pretty good use trail most of the way to the summit, with just a few short spurts of route finding challenges. To our chagrin, someone (guess who) had improved the use trail just a week before. It was going to be too easy. The mob would be totally in control; no leadership talent required.
Sperling, with a huge pudding-eating grin on her face, was first to reach the summit. Number 275! Everyone in our entourage congratulated her, even a few folks who had no concept of what a List finish is. We took the obligatory photos and stuffed ourselves while admiring the view, with wet clouds coming up from the south and dying at the summit. We had made good time, and all seemed blissful.
Time to return -- and party! We more or less retraced our steps toward the vehicles. This, I am sure, seemed all too easy for one participant, a rather well-known leader, expert navigator, and accomplished mountaineer, Ray Riley. As we neared the saddle that marked the transition from cross-country to trail, Ray requested to sign out. I know him to be a very fit hiker (especially for a septuagenarian) and he delights in blazing new paths (the brushier the better) and I did not argue. Off he went, freed from ties to our humdrum bunch.
I got slightly lost, recovered nicely, and we reached saddle 5729 and took a long break. In a bit over an hour (at 4:30) we reached the vehicles. People were salivating, visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. Oktoberfest and a few pints of import beer -- here I come!
We had not yet noticed the absence of Ray. His vehicle was there, his ride sharer, Deborah Clem, was there, but not him. What to do, what to do? Experience has indicated that waiting usually solves this sort of problem. So I waited with Deb (who had the keys to Ray's car) and released the others to celebrate.
6 p.m. came and still no Ray. I left Deb and drove the 22 miles to Lake o' the Woods (near Frazier Park) to make a free phone call to a 3 digit number. I got Kern County 911, who transferred me to Ventura County 911, to whom I explained the situation. In a few minutes I received a return call and was instructed to go to Sheriff Dept. Lockwood Substation. I had unwittingly passed this substation on my way to a phone. It is much closer to the trailhead I had left.
I want to say at this point that my purpose in writing this is not to malign anyone; I only want to describe what might happen in a SAR operation.
I drove there to await the arrival of the deputy in charge. I was given tea and offered TV to watch in the deputy's home while waiting. I provided information for the dispatcher/deputy's wife to fill out a standard rescue form. What kind of clothing? Point last seen? Time last seen? Physical description and estimate of condition, supplies, and capabilities. I was referred to as the "RP" (Reporting Party).
Deputy Steve Hanie arrived at about 8:30. The Search and Rescue (SAR) team was already notified and on the way. The substation garage was to be the command post (CP). He explained that helicopter support (with its night vision equipment) was not available that night because the heliport was socked in. Steve readied 3 dirt motorcycles. We had a report that Deb was still at the trailhead (called in by Brian and Karen Leverich, who visited the trailhead), so we knew that Ray had not returned.
The SAR team began to arrive. Three fellows changed into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-like suits and boots. A very smooth dude, exuding confidence, introduced himself as Senior Deputy Frank (something), the head coordinator for Ventura Co. SAR. Frank, Steve, and I consulted their NF map and I offered my scrap of HPS topo map, which they glanced at, then went back to their 2 miles per inch NF map without contour lines. They asked questions about Ray's habits and capabilities, and formulated a plan.
Frank decided to move the CP to the trailhead, then made some calls. He requested that I go along to the trailhead in case they had some questions. I really was anxious to do just that. I got into a queue of about 6 vehicles and followed them the 14 miles to the trailhead. There was a scene like Normandy on D-Day! There must have been 15 vehicles there. They were setting up a CP trailer with lights and a generator. Frank was huddling with the Mad Max guys, planning the search routes. They were going to send in 3 motorcycles and 2 "quads" (4-wheel ATVs). There were 2 tracker dogs. There were foot soldiers aplenty. I noticed that they had started using my little map in their discussions.
I learned that this plethora of searchers was on hand because on this day they held the annual SAR picnic at Lake Casitas. Practically the entire SAR staff was available. I learned that they had a sizable day shift set up as well. They seemed to relish this -- perhaps as an opportunity to train. I also noticed that the CP dispatch person was rather a babe, which may have been an additional motivational factor.
I left the scene shortly after midnight, leaving Deb to the hand-wringing duty, and got to Oktoberfest at about 1:30 a.m. Strangely, the party was over and there were no potluck leftovers or booze that I could find. I would inquire as to Mr. Riley in the morning.
Well, are you anxious to know what happened to Ray? Heart attack, broken leg, snake bite, lost, fell over a cliff? Dead, alive? Still missing, found? What? OK. Enough suspense.
He got a little bit lost after taking an interesting route that looked right but wasn't quite. When darkness was coming on he decided to a bivouac was in order. He spent a toasty night on a shelf above Little Mutau creek, getting plenty of sleep. He was smart enough not to try to get out at night with no trail. He did notice some commotion and lights during the night, but didn't think that a rescue effort would start until morning. He continued hiking at first light and found his way to Mutau Creek, an easy 2 mile hike from the trail and 3 miles from the car. He was found here at about 7:30 by the SAR crew, then evacuated by helicopter, examined by a medical professional, and released -- to live happily ever after.
While hiking near the summit of Thorn Point the next day we met two SAR members who were assigned to the morning shift and we discussed the operation. They were happy that the ground troops found the victim before the air force (helicopter) arrived. They said that the helicopter is almost always the hero.
I was most impressed with the effort put forth by Ventura County SAR, and HPS owes them a debt of, at least, gratitude.
Musings on "The List"
One May day in the year 2000 while hiking above Icehouse Canyon, I happened upon a register can at the summit of Timber Mountain. Little did I know that the little brown slip of paper inside the can (with a web address on it) would have a dramatic impact on my life. I looked up the website, discovered there were people out there who did crazier things than I could imagine ... and ended up joining them! This is the Hundred Peaks Section.
At first I thought, this is wonderful: there are peak guides and maps so I can go to a lot of new places that I never would have known about. My intent was to go solo or with a friend or two. But my curiosity got the best of me. I attended a monthly meeting (those of you who know, there wasn't much of a turnout!). Then I showed up for a day of hiking 4 peaks (wow, 4 all in one day, I thought!). They were Cleghorn, Cajon, Sugarpine, and Monument. Hey, who were these guys anyway??? Is this a 4-wheeling club? But I rode with John Connelly that day and met Cheryl Gill. Between the two of them, I got a complete picture of both HPS and WTC. I couldn't believe that people actually climbed 100 peaks much less "finished the List," but was glad to have found some people who seemed to have a lot of fun and welcomed outsiders.
The hardest hike was Rosa Point. You might wonder why, since there are others with worse reputations. I had gotten brainwashed by an infamous leader that it would be fun to do Villager, Rabbit, and Rosa in 3 days. I followed his directions of how much water to carry, but found my pack much too heavy (65 pounds). Would I make it? Turns out that the leader miscalculated the number of quarts in a gallon so I had way too much. Water reduced, things got better (never mind that we could have used some of it later -- I distinctly recall Ron Zappen saying on top of Rosa that he was going to eat his dried fruit since it was the wettest thing he had!). Then there was the new pack. It just didn't fit. Then there were the boots, and the steep desert cross county slopes. I was a neophyte and didn't yet own a set of trekking poles. With a heavy pack, slick soles, blisters, and steep slippery terrain, I was an accident waiting to happen. It happened about 10 yards from the safety of a wash. My boot slipped and my left hand tried to break my fall on a cholla cactus. Need I say more?
The only peak I attempted without finding the way to the summit on my first try was Cuyapaipe. I was following the peak guide. Just couldn't find a way through that brush!
The most unusual hikes were alluded to by Karen Leverich in the Sep/Oct '02 Lookout. Karen and I were coming off Old Man Mountain, just hitting the road, and I looked up to see a thick column of smoke. I took a bearing on the map from where we were to our parking spot, then held my compass up and it was in the center of the smoke! We thought Karen's Jeep was on fire! It turns out that two small planes had crashed in the box canyon just north of the parking spot. By the time we returned, they let us drive past. The fire had already burned up as far as the road. We didn't find out until the next day that it had been caused by the planes, but we were glad we didn't know when we were there (6 people killed). The other unusual occurrence was the same week. Karen and I were on our way to Thorn Point and saw some rustling in the bushes. A coyote had a tight grip with his jaw on the left groin of a fairly large deer, and a pack of coyotes was in quick pursuit. We cared the coyotes (beware, Sandy and Karen are pretty scary looking!) and the buck was able to limp up a steep slope away from the pack. Both these things shook us up, but won't keep us from hiking together again!
I took the Wilderness Travel Course (WTC) in 2001 and didn't climb any HPS peaks for 3 months. One of my WTC leaders said I was unusual since I had already climbed 75 peaks prior to taking the course and had navigated most of them. I got on the track to becoming a leader thanks to George Wysup, passed navigation, and learned some snow skills (and cut off my 15 inch ponytail since it froze when it snowed and I don't like being cold). Now I am an assistant leader for WTC and an I-rated leader.
On one WTC outing near Mt. San Jacinto, I decided I wanted to sign out from the group to get Folly since it was "so close." Only problem, it was snowing so hard on the west side of the mountain that I couldn't see more than 20 feet. I gave up that "folly" (sorry, I couldn't resist) and went back to Cornell since it happened to be in a spot of sunshine. I admit to signing in and not going all the way up the summit block. It was 17 degrees, the wind was blowing fiercely from the west, my water bottles froze, and I was solo. Just not safe. (Next time I'll go with you, Kent!)
Ah, the most memorable trip. That would be Cobblestone. We bagged 7 peaks in two very full days of hiking. After the sixth peak, a rock came slamming down on my left hand (which had been supporting some of my weight on a large rock), broke the bone that attaches to my index finger, and sliced open a good-sized vein. In the expert hands of Patty Rambert, I was bandaged up and off to the last peak in record time, and in the ER a mere 10 hours later.
I had begun all this hiking nonsense with a Mazda 626 -- you know, a 4-door sedan. After trying to plan my days off work around days when I could catch rides to trailheads from people who had proper vehicles, and then sometimes have to find a place to set up a tent, I finally bit the bullet and bought a 4WD Jimmy that I can sleep in. Picking up that little brown piece of paper two years ago has cost me over $20,000 in gear and a vehicle!!!
Once I got the Jimmy, I was free to go hiking more often and to stay for weekends more frequently since it was like a motor home, too. Besides, by this time I was truly obsessed with this thing called (only by insiders) "The List." I was trying to clean up the San Bernardino area and also the desert east of there. Maura and David were leading a hike to the Shays, Ingham, and Hawes on a Saturday. I also needed White, which I did after the group hike. Then I checked in with Maura and David to let them know I got out okay, took up the offer of a shower at the B&B where they were staying, and spent the night on Lone Valley Road. My intent was to climb Black #4 and Meeks the next day, the only peaks I had remaining in the area. I was dreading the long drive around from the Black trailhead to the Meeks trailhead, but thought I might as well do it while I was there. To verify my position, I turned on my GPS at the Black trailhead. To my amazement, when I hit "Nearest Waypoints," Meeks was closer than Black! I hiked to Black, but kept surmising how I might get to Meeks without the long drive out Pipes Canyon and back in New Dixie Mine Road. I found my own route that took less time than driving around! Unfortunately this route cannot be published due to private property issues, despite a lack of "No Trespassing" signs. [Webmaster note: Meeks itself is on private property, and the owners request that hikers use the official HPS route. Sandy's explorations helped clarify the situation.] But it was tremendous fun to "discover" my own route!
Sandy Burnside has become a really good buddy. I didn't know how good until she offered to do the Big 4 (that's a 53 mile backpack, folks!) for a second time in two weeks so I wouldn't have to wait a year to finish the List. We also have the common experience of acquiring Giardia from Chokecherry Spring! Beware of contamination from the trough!!!
I got down towards the end of my List and needed some help with a few peaks. I don't mind going solo some of the time, but I enjoy good company and like to learn from others with more experience. Somehow, I coaxed George Wysup and Ron Zappen into helping me clean out my 6 remaining peaks up north. It was fun, in spite of my undiagnosed Giardia. It was blazing hot and we miscalculated on water, but we rescheduled everything and got them all done in the time allotted. Ron left before the last peak. I drove George to the Skinner trailhead and back, then left down Hwy 14. A few miles later, I blew my left front tire. Now George had said two days before that I would need new front tires soon, but I didn't think it would be this soon! It was 96 degrees outside and I proceeded to get out my owner's manual and change the tire while the traffic whizzed by. (Of course, this is a "no phone service" area!!!) When I was almost done, a nice man stopped to help. I assumed George must have gone home the other direction, but when I called him that night, he remembered seeing me but said he didn't recognize me. Hmmmm, been with me for 3 days and just got out of my Jimmy. Just didn't recognize me be underneath my car?
My greatest fear when I got down near the end of the List was that I wouldn't be able to get through the Potrero Seco Road gate to go to Hildreth. That fear, based on horror stories from many long-time HPSers, was justified. I had a valid permit with two combinations that didn't work. But there was a property owner leaving as we were attempting to enter, and he let us through. I knew I was taking a big chance, but I really needed that peak -- for Pete's sake, I had a valid permit!! We passed one vehicle on our way to the trailhead, and asked for their combination, showing them our permit. They gave us the right combination. There was a truck parked at the trailhead with the permit on the dash, signed by the same person who signed my permit. It also boasted the combination the other driver had given us. I will be writing to the Ojai Ranger to try to straighten this out. One hypothesis is that this permit-writing person is confusing the combinations of different gates. In the meantime, double check the numbers, and contact me to see if I have gotten resolution from the Ojai Ranger.
Now I was down to two peaks: Eagle Rest and San Rafael. Mars Bonfire and Karen are leading a trip to Eagle Rest next month. Did they want help defining the route? We did just that the day before I finished on San Rafael. By finishing on San Rafael, I was co-leading with George Wysup and Sandy Burnside, two of the people who have had the greatest influence on my hiking, and we had a group of 24 people out for Oktoberfest weekend. Many thanks go to countless others!
Some stats: On my first pass through the list, I did 69 solo hikes and 85 additional hikes where I navigated but had someone else (usually non-HPS friends) along. This means I navigated 56% of the peaks my first time. (When I rode with someone to a drive-up, I didn't count it as navigating!) I have 45 on my 2X list, 27 pathfinders, and 23 official peak leads. That is minuscule compared to some of our HPS greats, but a nice start since I hadn't even heard of HPS 2 1/2 years ago ... and I still work full time. Let's see, 3 pairs of boots, accumulation of a lot of clothing and equipment, one SUV, one broken bone, countless lost toenails and blisters, about 30 cholla spines broken under the skin, sunburn, bug bites, nights on hard ground, hundreds of miles hiked, thousands of feet of elevation gained, getting dirty, sweaty, thirsty, hungry, tired ... and meeting a lot of terrific people! This is HPS!!!
I spent the night of September 28th (Saturday) alone on an unplanned bivouac at 5000' in the Sespe Wilderness. I had been a participant on an HPS hike to San Rafael Peak, and signed out (and assumed full personal responsibility) midway on the return to explore an interesting set of ridges. As it happened the ascending ridge was heaving brushed near the top, and I spent both time and energy attempting to find a penetrable route to the top. Moreover, after finally working westward around the brush, I then inexplicably missed the proper turn to the west onto the trail leading back to the trailhead, continuing northward instead. I dropped sharply into a properly oriented ravine expecting to find the return trail; it was not the proper ravine.
I followed this ravine to its terminus as it turned north, then westward all out of the range of my TopoZone map. At this point it was nearly 6 pm and time and energy indicated a bivouac was in order, with all of the ill-consequences for those unaware of my plan and status. I expected night temperatures in the 40's. I found a promising shelf about 200' above the ravine bottom that had good material for a small impromptu lean-to shelter. I knew I had gone too far northward, and my bivouac faced into an open south-trending ravine. I guessed that this ravine would intersect one of the trails shown on my map and I intended to follow it at first light in the morning. I also supposed that Search and Rescue would be looking for me shortly after first light.
Temperature at my bivouac dropped from 65 deg at 7 pm to 43 deg at 5 am. (I learned later that the low temp in the ravine bottoms had reached 38 deg). I had a light capaline undershirt, a light wind jacket, a rain poncho, a bandana, some water, and a Power Bar in addition to my summer hiking clothes. I had to make a few adjustments as temperature dropped. I made a thin mattress out of some soft low brush, laying in some extra brush for use as stuffing insulation (which I never needed). I tied the bandana and a handkerchief over the top of my head, which I then covered with the hoods of the wind jacket and poncho. I stuffed some brush into a small stuff bag and topped it with the inserts from my boots and my hat for a pillow, put on my boots, and assumed a pretty comfortable prone position in the lean-to. Later, as the temperature continued to drop, I emptied my day pack and strapped it on my back under the poncho, and snugged the nether flaps of my poncho over my butt in two layers. On occasion my legs felt cold and I would find the poncho flaps had slipped and needed to be re-snugged. All this seemed to keep me warm enough to fairly calmly contemplate my situation and snooze periodically.
At first light I dropped into the south ravine and immediately came upon a trail whose continuation, I supposed, was shown on my map and would lead to the trailhead exit. As I headed down this trail it became obvious that I was on track. Shortly before reaching the trailhead exit I encountered a pair of Ventura County Search and Rescue volunteers, and learned that a sizeable search operation had been in progress since 10 pm. (This instantly explained some of the faint sounds that I had heard during the night as well as some canyon-bottom activity that i had observed at some distance about 2:30 am). I obliged them cooperatively by waiting several minutes for the arrival of a helicopter that had been dispatched from Vandenberg. When I was delivered to the trailhead I found a S&R command post with several vehicles and a dozen (or more) S&R personnel. A paramedic checked my vitals, a crew chief debriefed me, and I was released (into the company of my friend, Deb, who had spent the night uncomfortably at the trailhead in considerable anguish).
Now what did I do really wrong (besides, some would suggest, leaving the HPS group in the first place):
I. After leaving the group, I navigated by sight, memory and instinct in unfamiliar territory without periodically confirming my location with reference to my map. I thought the route back to the trailhead would be a no-brainer. (As it turned out it wasn't the route that was a no-brainer.)
II. I had driven to the trailhead in my car with Deb, who stayed with the group, and later all night at the S&R command post. Upon leaving the group (I did give her my car keys), I should have informed her of my desires in case I didn't return to the trailhead as expected. As it was, she had no idea of my (emergency) expectations. Not, I suspect, that she would have behaved differently had she known my expectations.
I owe a special thanks to Deb, and to George Wysup, who dealt with my untimely failure to return to the trailhead. I also owe a special thanks to the S&R personnel, who mobilized and spent an uncomfortable night searching for me. I am indeed humbled by their concern for me, and I am deeply chagrined by the effort and anxiety that my misadventure provoked. (Nevertheless, I am probably not fully repentant.)
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