San Rafael Mountain, McKinley Mountain, Santa Cruz Peak

25 May 1999 (Private Backpack)

By: Mars Bonfire


Hikers: Mars Bonfire, George Wysup, Rosemary Campbell.

This would be about as close as you could get to a List finish without actually finishing. For after these three George would have only Mt Gleason left - pretty much a sure thing. If we got up the Big Three we could consider the finish a done deal.

We spent Monday night, the 24th, at Cachuma Saddle and started hiking in the morning a little before 7:00 AM. A civil time to be off. Though our plan was not yet finalized this would allow us ample time to reach McKinley Spring and do at least one peak before dark. We soon realized it was very hot and still and the occasional shade or puff of air on the long road walk to the spring were most welcome. The only upside to the heat was that it had brought out a profusion of wildflowers - prickly phlox, chia, wallflower, and wild lilac. [Wild lilac? Appealing name, isn't it. Kind of makes you want to break out the picnic basket and enjoy a leisurely lunch and glass of wine in its shade and fragrance. When it's out of bloom, though, we have a somewhat more realistic name for it - chaparral whitethorn! - and if I were handing out common names for plants I'd kick the realism up a notch or two and call it Abomination Bush, or Hiker's Hell, or Delist This Peak Immediately Shrub!] The road has been recently graded. Quite improved from its condition during Byron Prinzmetal's scheduled trip or later on a private trip with Hugh Blanchard. On those two outings we encountered a large downed tree and a lot of rock fall.

After settling in at McKinley Spring we decided it was much too hot to do Santa Cruz and opted for San Rafael and McKinley. This was the order I had been hoping for anyway. Having done the peaks in various sequences on backpacks and once on a day hike with Tom Hill, I feel the kindest and gentlest way is by a leisurely backpack in followed by a good rest and then hike San Rafael and McKinley. Do Santa Cruz the next day, return to camp for another good rest and go out. The first level of cruelty would be Santa Cruz the first day and the other two the following. Crueler still would be all three the first day, a good nights sleep, and out. Roughly equal to this would be all three on a day hike - more miles and elevation but less gear to carry. If all three are being done in one day it makes some sense (but not much if you hate brush) to do Santa Cruz first and then go up the zig-zag firebreak on the south side of San Rafael until it ends a little before the major saddle southwest of the register. Drop down to the left a couple of hundred feet through oak and brush to the Mission Pines Trail, turn right and proceed a short distance to the rock marker, indicating the turn off to the register. This saves the long down and up jeep road walk back to McKinley Saddle - a walk which moves you away from your peak.

Our hike to San Rafael and McKinley went quickly and well although we were becoming more oppressed by the heat and concerned about the possibility of heat exhaustion the next day on Santa Cruz. One of us jokingly mentioned that since we would have an early rising and nearly full moon, we could do Santa Cruz by moonlight and escape the heat and the burden of carrying four or five quarts of water. We all laughed. Of course it was ridiculous. The route is so convoluted and brushy that it is a challenge to do by sunlight let alone moonlight. We returned to camp with the tentative plan of starting as early as possible next morning to hike Santa Cruz.

I discovered that some sharp toothed critter had chewed through my water filter hose to get a few measly drops inside. Hey rodent! Didn't you see the horse trough overflowing with H20? How's that for gratitude? We give them a wilderness and they want the world. They're never satisfied unless they're gnawing on our high-tech gear. And that hose could cost me as much as $.60 to replace! Well, don't feel too sorry for me. I performed a little ritual and put the curse of extinction on the beast before settling down to trail mix.

You know you're hiking in unusual conditions when the most sensible and cautious member of the group, Rosemary, starts thinking that the most ridiculous of the available options is actually a pretty darn good idea. So with her encouragement we began taking the moonlight option seriously. An unspoken fear of darkness, though, kept us from fully implementing the plan and we left around 5:30 PM hoping to get the peak by sundown and do the return in moonlight. When we got to the base of the bump northeast of Santa Cruz we headed for the lowest rocky outcrop on the ridge line. We worked our way above this, then moved into a bulldozer cut a little left of the ridge. Close to the top, this intersected another bulldozer cut where we turned right and contoured down into the saddle between this bump and Santa Cruz. The cut continued part way up Santa Cruz and then contoured around towards the west side. We found it very overgrown and after much bending and twisting and parting of branches we saw the rock markers to our left indicating the pull off up to the register. On this last section, we built up any markers we saw and put in some new ones, for the sun was on the verge of setting and we would be working our way back through this maze with little light.

Finally the register! And then the fastest sign in I have ever witnessed: No taking in the view, no browsing through the book to see which friends had been here before, no energy bar or trail mix, not even a sip of water. Just scribble and go. And not a moment too soon, for as we descended towards the bulldozer cut the sun disappeared below the horizon. For sheer energizing power few things, not even Starbuck's strongest, can match Fear of Darkness. We made surprisingly good time back to the saddle between Santa Cruz and its pal to the northeast and then over that bump and down to the jeep road - half walking and half running.

Now the moon was dominant. All scattered light from the setting sun had left the sky. And we were pleasantly surprised by how sharply defined the moonlit shadows were and how reflective some of the rock and plants were. We didn't even bother turning on our flashlights. Our fear had been somewhat unfounded. This was actually kind of enjoyable! And what was that perfume we were sensing? All those wildflowers were releasing their fragrances into the night air. And our eyes were drawn to the many lights glimmering below in the Santa Ynez Valley. We thought of the people down there closing out their daily routines. Were any of them thinking of us up here? And we looked ahead and saw the big picture of our return outlined in ghostly silver-white. Hey, this was more than kind of enjoyable. This was enthralling! And we moved in silence, each enjoying the experience in their own way. This is about as good as it gets: Three compatible hikers returning from an adventure that had some challenge and uncertainty to it successful, tired but not yet exhausted, relaxed and meditative yet still alert at the core, letting an inner computer programmed through years of trail miles handle the details. We returned to camp around 11:30 PM still under enchantment, had a peaceful sleep, and easily walked out the next day. And George graciously offered to treat for lunch in Santa Barbara - a perfect ending to an unforgettable Big Three.


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