Fastpacking Big Sur… Round 2!

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Welcome to the Ventana Wilderness…

Can’t believe it’s already been a year since I’ve created this blog! A lot sure can happen in a year…

  • Completed two, 100 milers (HURT and Santa Barbara)
  • Got my ass kicked at the CIM marathon
  • Got a new kitten that is absolutely fearless, hunts and kills everything, and we’re fairly certain beats up Carly when we’re not around
  • Started a new position with my company
  • Watched Alejandra compete in her first trail races
  • Partnered with Physiophyx
  • Picked up the “W” at several beer miles
  • Spent countless hours on the trails, and roads, with a ton of amazing people

Starting off the first post of 2016, I thought it would be fun to recap my second attempt at fastpacking the Pine Ridge trail in Big Sur. For anyone that read my first post about attempting the 46ish mile out-and-back trail from Big Sur to China Camp, you’ll know that Carly and I threw in the towel after day one. Actually, Carly would’ve easily handled the trip… I pussed out! Having a fancy Ultimate Direction fastpack doesn’t mean squat when you’re carrying a $10 dollar sleeping bag rated for 60+ degrees (30 degree nightly temps), no pad and 5-10lbs of needless junk.

Hoping that the fairly expensive trip to Mountain Air Sports immediately following our first Big Sur debacle solved the gear issue, Carly and I planned for a successful two day trip to China Camp and back.

Making our way to the same trailhead as a year before, I was sure to bring my checkbook, as there was no way I was going to pay that damn $70+ parking fine again! We hit the Pine Ridge Trailhead at approximately 10:00am, which I thought would give us plenty of time (7 hours) to make it to China Camp before dark.

The first 10 miles to Sykes was uneventful, as Carly and I made great time covering the trip in approximately 2.5hrs. The weather was definitely cooler this time around, as I contemplated a long sleeve at several points throughout the trek. I rocked a tank top in 2014, and was pouring sweat by the time we hit Sykes. After a short break to refill our water and have some snacks, Carly and I made our way up the Pine Ridge trail for the final 13 miles of Day 1.

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Carly and I on our way into Sykes Camp

Never before venturing past Sykes camp, I spent the prior night scouring the internet for any reviews of the Pine Ridge Trail, past Sykes, to China Camp. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much information available, but all the posts regarding the trail had one common theme… “Overgrown”

If you’ve ever made the trip from Big Sur to Sykes, you’d know that the trail is VERY well maintained. Hats off to the Ventana Wilderness Group for caretaking this 10 mile stretch, because it’s relatively wide and very easy to navigate. Looking back after our second attempt at the Pine Ridge Trail, I’m assuming the vast majority of hikers, if not damn near all of them, travel only from Big Sur to Sykes…

Carly and I had approximately 4.5 hours to make the 13 mile trip from Sykes to China Camp. Considering we knocked out the first 10 miles in 2.5hrs, I assumed we were an absolute lock for making it before dark… I shouldn’t assume!

I’ve encountered some fairly rugged trails in my three years of ultrarunning. Hawaii’s root infested jungle… Santa Barabara’s remote back country… Even San Luis Obispo has its fair share of technical terrain. Big Sur’s Pine Ridge Trail humbled the hell out of me in less than 8 miles!

In reading the topo map, I knew we’d have a 3-4k climb out of Sykes, from mile 10-20. On paper this didn’t look terrible, as we had already climbed 2,500ft. in the first 10 miles of the day. Unfortunately, topo maps don’t show trail conditions. Within 400 meters of starting the trek from Sykes to China Camp, the lush single/double track that we enjoyed for the first few hours turned into 6 miles of hell!

The term “overgrown” used by many to explain the 6+ miles between Sykes and Pine Ridge camp was definitely not the word I’d use to explain the trail. “Wild”…“Deserted”… “Neglected”… ”Ridiculous” would be more fitting. Hanging machetes at the Sykes camp might be a better idea for keeping the trail usable, than the plan currently in place by the forest service.

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Yes, this is a trail
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There’s one here too…

 

The vegetation lining the trail must have been hardened by years of drought, as it was extremely sharp and unforgiving. I cursed myself multiple times for not bringing some gear that would’ve combated the shrubbery. Thinking that 5 hours would be plenty of time to make the 13 mile trip from Sykes to China Camp may not have been the wisest assumption. Miles 11-14: 2,150ft. of vert and an average of 19:30/mile. Miles 15-17: 1,700ft. of vert and an average of 27:20/mile. Considering the pace for the first 10 miles was 15:00/mile, unless my math was VERY wrong, there was no way we’d make it into China Camp before dark.

Passing mile 13ish, for the first time in our leg since Sykes camp, we ran into some fellow hikers taking a break from the rough climb. They were a group of six making their way through a multiday hike, and they were also hiking with a dog that wasn’t too fond of Carly. We briefly caught up on how atrocious the trail was and asked each other if it was going to get any better. They were hiking into Pine Ridge camp for the night, which they thought would take another 1-2hrs.

Carly and I reached mile 16 around 2:45-3:00pm, after hiking for nearly an hour on some ground that felt like rock. There was a sign that read, “Pine Ridge Camp” and someone had etched “Water” with an arrow into the sign. Considering we had used up more than half of our water and we weren’t even halfway through our 13 mile stretch to China Camp, we decided to take a quick break and try to find this water source.

The Pine Ridge “camp” is a pretty desolate, but absolutely beautiful location, 6 miles and 3,300ft. up from Sykes. After trekking down .3 miles through some “overgrown” foliage, you arrive at an open space able to comfortably sleep 6-10. Aside from a fire pit that hadn’t seen much recent use, and a bear-resistant storage bin that didn’t seem too resistant, there wasn’t much else in the area.

We started searching for this supposed water source, and followed several narrow trails from the camp. I guess the fifth’s time’s a charm, because we finally stumbled into water following the last trail from the site. Someone had literally tapped into a spring, as water was trickling out of the side of the mountain through a small pipe. After filling up all our bottles and drinking till full, Carly and I made our way back to the Pine Ridge Trail.

Shortly after cresting 4,000ft., I realized why the ground had been rock solid for the past couple of miles… it was frozen! We were very surprised to see snow on the trail, and the amount exponentially increased as we climbed the next 500ft. With a “trail” that we could barely follow before, this new variable was sure to make things interesting. Losing the trail on multiple occasions, taking over 30 minutes to climb 1 mile and inching closer to sunset, I decided to pull the ripcord and make our way back down to the Pine Ridge camp for the night.

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Starting to get chilly…

Hiking for the second time down to the Pine Ridge camp, Carly and I ran into the fellow hikers that we met earlier in the day. Their dog nipped at Carly again, so we decided to set up camp far enough away to keep the peace.

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The turnaround point

Knowing that we were only a couple miles from snow, I assumed we were in it for a cold night. Setting up our camp under the stars, I laid out my pad and sleeping bag next to the backpack. Flipped over on its back and using a windbreaker and jacket as blankets, Carly had a comfortable bed right next to mine. Cracking some portable wine saved from recent United flights, we hunkered down for the evening finishing an awesome book, “Running with the Buffaloes.” If you’re ever in the mood to get humbled at the level of effort you’re putting into training, please try this book out as it chronicles the 1998 University of Colorado’s cross country season. Although it was VERY cold, thankfully the new gear held up well as we hit the sack for the evening.

Once the fellow hikers called it a night, it was eerily quiet at camp. Normally I sleep like a log, so the rustling near my head must’ve been pretty loud to wake me up in the middle of the night. Not knowing what the hell was outside the sleeping bag, I turned on my headlamp and peeked outside to see a field mouse staring me right in the face. The little guy wasn’t afraid of me in the least, so I physically had to shoo him away. Probably not the smartest idea to have our food right near my head.

The suspicions of a cold night were proven true as we woke up to all our water bottles frozen. Packing up camp quickly and thinking it wasn’t going to be any easier to find the trail to China Camp in the morning as the afternoon before, I decided to head back towards Big Sur. After getting scraped and stuck through 6 miles of “overgrown” foliage, we made great time from Sykes back to Big Sur.

 

After a 2+ hour drive home and a monster meal, we relaxed for a bit before Alejandra made it home from work. I could get used to this not working thing…

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Awful way to spend a morning…
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Even a worse afternoon…

What I Learned

  • The 3,000ft climb from Sykes to Pine Ridge Camp (mile 10-to-mile 16ish) is absolutely breathtaking! The pictures attached to this post don’t give it justice, and if you’re ever thinking of making the trip, please let me know as we’d love to join you
  • Allow much more time than you think you’ll need for fastpacking on a trail you’ve never hiked before
  • Better to call it an early day and hike back to relative safety, than attempt to follow an unmarked “trail” past dark
  • 4,700ft doesn’t seem too high, but it’s high enough to get real once the sun goes down
  • Leaving a water bottle or two in your sleeping bag overnight might be beneficial if you’d like to drink something before noon
  • If “overgrown” is used to describe trail conditions, bring some damn clothing that protects from sharp vegetation
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