Friday, March 25, 2016

Big Sur, Big Rains // A loop around the Silver Peak Wilderness, Part 1

The first trip of my outdoor work season was a backpacking trip in Big Sur's Silver Peak Wilderness with 11th grade girls from Dunn School. When I arrived at Dunn for orientation and prep, I learned that I would lead an all-female-identified group, including the faculty member, which was somewhat rare for Dunn, and solidly in my comfort zone, since I had begun my backpacking instructor career with GirlVentures. It was a welcome surprise.

Monday: Los Olivos to Forks Campground (or so we thought)

We set out from Los Olivos with the intention of doing a point-to-point hike in the Ventana Wilderness, but Big Sur received such a deluge in the days prior that two of the roads to our original trailhead were closed and the trail itself was impassable. The creek we were meant to cross had swelled enormously and was moving fast; crossing it was beyond the scope of our trip as well as objectively dangerous. This, along with the poor condition of the road we had just driven up, which another group would have to drive down with bad weather in forecast, necessitated a change of plans. As we hiked back to the trailhead, I asked the faculty member whether they had ever had to cross water like that. In past years, she said, her feet had barely gotten wet. 

We camped that first night at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground, setting up our tents during another bout of rain and retiring soon after dinner in the cold. The next morning was clear, thankfully, for our drive down to the Silver Peak Wilderness, where we would hike this loop:

Tuesday: Salmon Creek Trailhead to Buckeye Campground

We parked at the Salmon Creek Trailhead lot, which is a few minutes' walk south of where Buckeye Trail starts. Our goal that day was to get to Buckeye Camp, which would have us traveling 3.75 miles and climbing about 1700 feet in elevation. Needless to say, that was a challenging first-day hike, especially since we had spent the morning driving down from the Ventana Wilderness and did not start until 1:00 pm.

The girls were great about adjusting to one another's needs, whether we were dealing with physical challenges or motivational ones. We hiked as a close group, and I was thankful that I didn't have to continuously remind people that no matter what, we could only go as fast as the slowest hiker anyway. In groups where some want to go faster, I've found that oftentimes we've reached the destination later rather than sooner; people get so tired that rest breaks are longer and less efficient, and there are many more aches and pains to haunt us along the way.

We made camp at dusk, when we found a spot that, though it was not the flattest terrain, we had a kitchen with glorious ocean view. The stars that night were magnificent-- the best I saw the entire trip.

I was relieved to finally be in the backcountry after our frazzling first day. The gentler weather certainly helped, too.
The next day, we realized we had been just half a mile or so short of the actual Buckeye Camp. Though it was a lovely meadow with a picnic table and trees, most (all?) of us were glad that we stopped when we had.

Wednesday: Buckeye Camp to Lion's Den

This second day of hiking was to be our longest, with the map and trail signs telling us we'd have anywhere from 5 to 7 miles to cover that day, over varying terrain. We climbed up the rest of Buckeye Trail and headed east on Cruickshank Trail, passing one of the other groups along the way, who were doing the reverse of our loop. They warned us of thick brush, poison oak, and knee-deep water that would be on our next day's hike. We filed away that information while focusing on the miles we still had ahead of us before that night's camp.

We all began to hit our stride on this day, I think, with students showing their aptitude and interest in navigation, natural history, and traveling over unfamiliar terrain. We saw beautiful manzanitas and madrones, shrubby trees with smooth, chocolatey, surreal bark which love a little elevation and Mediterranean climes.

There were exposed trails, some of which were quite eroded from the recent rain, leading to a few instances when I passed a trekking pole back for students, or closely spotted them as they made their way down startlingly steep trail. Again, they showed their commitment to an encouraging environment and helping one another get through the experience safely.

One thing to remember when hiking across exposed, eroding trails cut into steep mountainsides: keep moving! Steadily and calmly continue forward until you reach more stable ground; taking very slow steps or hesitating will only give the ground more time to weaken beneath your weight.

Just a quarter mile or so before Lions Den Campground, on the ridge, we stopped for a snack break in the shade of the chaparral. Since it was the midway point of our trip, I took some time to revisit Leave No Trace ethics as well as the group's hopes and fears, which we had shared before the trip began.

We then descended into Lions Den Camp, which we were to share with another group from the school. Students are always so thrilled to see one another even though they've only been apart for a couple of days! We allowed the groups to spend fifteen minutes together (which instructors and faculty were also glad to spend), and then we each went back to our own camp chores for the night. It all went very smoothly.

One student from the other group was super impressed that we had gone all the way from Buckeye and made it to Lions Den just an hour or so before them-- they had started 1 or 2 miles ahead of us at Upper Cruickshank Camp. I praised our group for their efficiency in getting out of camp, typically one of the biggest challenges/time-eaters when backpacking. We took advantage of the clear evening with a post-dinner lesson, and then prepared for another early (though not quite as early) start the next morning.

Thursday AM : Lions Den Campground to Estrella Campground

We woke at 6:45 and had camp packed up (and foot care done!) by around 8:30 that morning-- another praiseworthy effort. While the group was eager to begin hiking, a few had new complaints about their packs, and I took some time to take a closer look.

It takes experience to get used to the many minute adjustments that can be made throughout the day to keep a pack comfortable, and students sometimes are not aware of how packs are supposed to fit. There are places where it's normal to experience aches and discomfort, such as around the hipbones, but any time students express pain in the back or shoulders, it's worth finding a good stopping point to fiddle with adjustable torsos and attachment points for loader straps (the straps above the shoulder that help pull the upper part of the pack closer to your back). 

Another note on pack-fitting is that when a higher-capacity pack in my size is available, I go for it-- this saves a lot of time and grief, and over-stuffing can lead to a pack no longer fitting comfortably, not to mention putting unnecessary stress on the fabric and zippers. If you have trouble getting all of your gear inside the pack the first time, it's not going to get much better even as you eat your food. It's much easier to have too much room and cinch down the pack.

The stroll along Cruickshank Trail to Coast Ridge Road was quite fast, leading us to question the trail sign stating that Lions Den was a whole mile away.

We could see the valleys all around us, and could almost make out the ocean through some haze. We stopped for a few photos. A solo hiker (the only person we encountered who was not from the school) came upon us and also warned of the thick brush along Salmon Creek Trail. I was confident that we would be fine, since it is much different to walk uphill through thick brush than charge downhill. 

As we made our way down, we could really see what they meant. Chaparral, live oak, sharp succulents, and plenty of poison oak all grew close into the trail. For those of us in the 4'11 (me) to 5'3 range, it wasn't too bad, but we really felt for our 5'11 group member, who was having to push through or duck below all the stuff growing above our heads. She assured us that she was fine. A couple of other students said "This is actually fun!" The trail was clearer as we made it to Estrella Camp, where we stopped for lunch. We were tempted to make camp there, it was so nice, but we had many hours left in the day, and the lure of a shorter hike out the next morning motivated us on. 

To be continued... 

(Wow, this post is longer than I imagined it would be, but I'm enjoying reliving the trip-- tomorrow I begin prepping for a trip with Dunn's sophomores. Hopefully I'll be able to write Part 2 before we set off. There are no photos from this trip because I ruined my old-but-good camera during my very wet and cold trip in Alaska last year, but I've acquired a new, water-resistant camera for future trips.)

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