Monday, June 22, 2015

Rockin' In the Free World

Moonrise Over the Eastern Sierra from Tuttle Creek
We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand
We got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.
-Neil Young, Rockin' in the Free World

Friday Night. Tuttle Creek campground in the Alabama Hills. You won't hear me say it very often, but it's a beautifully warm evening. The encroaching night has taken the edge off of the day's sweltering heat. Stars blink brightly above the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. The waxing crescent moon hangs in the darkening sky.

Across the dirt road, in campsite no. 3 sits a solitary old man reading a book. A motorcycle is parked at the entrance to his site. He had waved to us as we pulled in and then walked back to the camp entrance to register our site. We waved back at him. After we set up and got situated, we crossed the road to offer him a beer. It seemed like the neighborly thing to do.

Not knowing him and his tastes, we gave him options. A fancy craft beer from LA or a blue-collar no-name beer from Trader Joe's. He contemplated his choice for a moment before reaching for the fancy craft beer. He held it lovingly in his hands as we began to talk.

He was 71 years old with a comfortable ease about him. He was clean. Articulate. Lucid. Well spoken. He was traveling across America on his motorcycle. He was a retired vagabond. A modern day Captain America. That resonated with us. And we told him so.

But as we continued to talk to him, it became apparent that his romantic tale of adventure was nothing more than lipstick he was putting on the homeless pig. He said he received $700/month in social security benefits. Was married for 40 years to the same women who left him after he paid $30,000 for her to get a face-lift. He liked the desert because it was safer than the city. He could trust campers. They typically don't steal your stuff.

He asked us if we were academics. We pondered that for a moment before telling him "no." He replied that that was unfortunate. He had a math problem that he had been working on for decades that he wanted to discuss with a mathematician. No one would give him the time. Even at public academic institutions. "No disrespect, but people like you guys normally ignore me too" he told us. "The rest just try to rip me off."

He spoke about the "point to noise ratio" and how it was lower in the desert than in the city. We nodded in agreement although neither of us knew what the fuck he was talking about. Later, we thought that perhaps he was referring to the quality of human interactions in relation to their number. But that is just speculation. Whatever he intended, he seemed to want meaning from encounters with his fellow travelers.

He asked us what we were doing. We explained that we were going to backpack into the Cottonwood Lakes the next day. He looked perplexed. Why he asked? Adventure, fun, sublimity we told him. We were looking to reduce the noise too. He remained confused.

As the conversation waned and the sky darkened, he told us he couldn't drink the beer we had offered. Something about his past. He had demons and needed to keep them away from his campsite. We understood and reached to reclaim our gift. He stared long at the now warm can in his hands and then relinquished it. Reluctantly.

We left early the next morning as the rising sun began to paint the mountains in alpenglow. The old man was up and waved to us as we pulled out. We drove to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center in hopes of scoring a walk up permit. When we arrived, there was already a line. After separating those with reserved permits from those of us without, the ranger in charge had us draw numbers from a hat to determine the order in which we would be called. There were 14 of us who drew numbers. I drew number 13 and tried to horse trade with the others. The only person who showed interest was the poor slob who drew number 14.

When my number was called, I stepped up and informed the ranger that we wanted to go into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin. He stared a the screen for a moment. There were 4 permits available. Surprisingly, they had been available since the day before. We took two and gave thanks to the mountain gods for allowing us in.

And the mountains delivered. As they always do and will. The crisp blue skies. The cool green forests. The deafening silence. The goddamn freedom of it all. But I couldn't shake the old man. As much as I tried to ignore him like "my type" always does, he kept invading my thoughts. His noise ratio is high. What will happen when he gets too old and feeble to handle his motorcycle? What if he gets rolled? Will anyone pay attention to him and his math problem? Will they listen? How will he get by if he has a major medical expense? Or a repair bill? $700/month is pretty skimpy and he's living on the razor's edge now.

I don't know what will happen to the old man of Tuttle Creek. But I liked him. And I'm worried.

Daybreak Along the Eastern Sierra
The Cottonwood Lakes Trail
Entering the John Muir Wilderness
The Cottonwood Lakes Basin
Trail Signage to Muir Lake
Less Frequently Visited Muir Lake
Muir Lake's Western Shoreline
Bring on the Night
First Light
Muir Lake in the Morning
More Muir Lake
View East from the Muir Lake Trail
Exploring the Cottonwood Lakes Basin
The Cottonwood Lakes Basin
View Towards Old Army Pass
Cottonwood Lakes No. 1

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Chief Peak the Ugly Way

Pointy Chief Peak as Seen from Chief Peak Fire Road
Ok, calling it the "ugly way" is a bit of an over-statement. Maybe the "uninteresting way" would be a more apt description since the views along the way are pretty spectacular even if the hike up is rather, um, "pedestrian." Either way, fire roads are not my favorite way to get to a peak and this hike involved quite a bit of fire road. 

So why go the fire road route if there are other alternatives? I'm glad you asked that. At 5,587 feet, Chief Peak is the highest point along the Nordhoff Ridge. I've been eying it for some time, but thought a summer route from the north would be preferable to climbing out of the Ojai Valley by way of the potentially scorching route up south-facing Horn Canyon. I was also looking for the most direct route to the summit of the Chief's somewhat out-of-the-way location. Looking at Tom Harrison's map of the Sespe, I didn't see any routes that fit those criteria other than fire road 5N42 out of Rose Valley campground. 5N42, which is the entry for ORV access to the Nordhoff Ridge, climbs south out of Rose Valley to intersect with Chief Peak Road. From that intersection, the route takes you east along the Nordhoff Ridge via Chief Peak Road until your reach a fire break approximately 1.5 miles later that affords easy access to Chief's summit. North-facing, short, and direct. So that was the route I settled on.

Thorn Point and the Sespe from Fire Road 5N42
Upper Rose Valley Falls, Such as They are at the Present
Pine Mountain Ridge from Fire Road 5N42
Pine Mountain Ridge Detail

5N42 begins at the rear south-west corner of the Rose Valley campground. There is a small spot to park between two campsites near the trailhead for Rose Valley Falls that you can squeeze into. Adventure Pass required I believe. Almost immediately, the road begins a relentless climb toward the Nordhoff Ridge to the south. Candidly, I was surprised by the sustained steepness of the road, although it is well smooth as a baby's bottom and well maintained. The day was warm and the bugs were out in force which was annoying, but as the road climbed out of Rose Valley, the dramatic views really begin to open up and a breeze kicked up for which I was eternally grateful. To the south-east, the Rose Valley Falls are visible. To the north lies the Piedra Blanca, the Sespe, and the ramparts of Pine Mountain. Looking west, you catch of glimpse of the Howard Creek trail as it makes its way toward Nordhoff Ridge several miles away.  

5N42 Flora
The Howard Creek Trail Climbing to Nordhoff Ridge to the West of 5N42
The Nordhoff Peak Fire Lookout Standing Sentinel in the Distance
After approximately 2.2 miles of climbing, 5N42 intersects the Nordhoff Ridge. From here, and all along the ridgeline, you are treated to expansive views south of the Ojai Valley, the Oxnard Plain, and the Channel Islands in the Santa Barbara Channel. The road going east from here will take you out to Chief Peak and beyond; the road going west roller-coasters along the ridgeline out to Nordhoff Peak.
The Ojai Valley and Beyond from Chief Peak Road
The Oxnard Plain and Pt. Mugu from Chief Peak Road
The View North Toward Thorn Point from Chief Peak Road
Piedra Blanca and Thorn Point
The Upper Ojai Valley from Chief Peak Road
Atop the Nordhoff Ridge, the traveling is easy. Basically a stroll along an undulating fire road. A jeep passed me as I ambled along the road absorbing the scenery and solitude, but I had no other company except the halo of flies that magically appeared when the breeze was suddenly stilled. Approximately 1.5 miles later, an obvious fire break to the right signaled it was time to leave the road for a bit of welcome cross-country travel.

Approaching the Chief from the Nordhoff Ridge
Thorn Point Framed by a Nice Meadow
The Firebreak Leading to Chief Peak. You Leave the Road Here
The firebreak requires a scamper up a steep, loose slope to the top of the "bump" to the Chief's immediate west. From the vantage point atop the bump, you get a good look at the Chief up close and personal and the rocky route ahead. That route follows a use trail to the base of the rocky out-cropping shown in the picture below and then contouring around to the south side for some Class 2 scrambling to the top.
Close Up of the Chief. The Route Up Contours Around to the Right in this Pic
The Ojai Valley and Channel Island from Chief's Summit
Anacapa Island Peaking Out from Above the Coastal Fog
Atop the summit I found two benchmarks, a summit register, and rocky aerie upon which to lunch and appreciate the 360 degree vistas. Even though the fog clung heavy to the coastline, the Oxnard Plain, Pt. Mugu, and the Santa Monica Mountains were all plainly visible. Although partially obscured from view, Anacapa Island also poked its head through the cloud cover to make its presence known. Looking north brought views of Reyes and Haddock Peaks, the upper Sespe drainage, Piedra Blanca, and Thorn Point. The Topa Topa Bluffs featured prominently in the view to the east.

The Sespe from Chief Peak Summit
The Topa Topa Bluffs
One of Two Benchmarks Atop Chief Peak

The Second Benchmark. This One Looks More Recent.

Chief Peak Summit Register Adorned with Eispiraten Logo
After spending what was far too short a time on the summit, I scrambled back down to Chief Peak Road and began my way back to Rose Valley. On the ridgeline, the breeze kept things tolerably pleasant and the bugs at bay. Descending 5N42 on the backside of the ridge, however, the breeze abated and the bugs became my constant companion all the way back to Rose Valley campground.

So that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Although fire roads are generally not my preferred mode of back-country travel, in this case the ease of access, the direct route they provided, and the amazing scenery all made up for the "ugliness" of not having a trail to tread.