The Hiker and the Mountain
I apologize for the long winded, rambling description. On Christmas the rains came, higher up the rain became snow, and snow closes the roads (at least in Southern California). I had been planing a backpacking trip to Willet Hot Springs out in the Sespe Wilderness for several weeks and waiting for the opportunity for most of the year. My work closes from the winter solstice until the second of the new year so its the perfect time to do the 10 mile trek out to the springs. Its not a place I would ever go to in the summer since temperatures become too hot to be enjoyable, and the one time I tried to make it to the first campsite along the route at 3.5 miles in I began to develop heat exhaustion and had to stop by the river, disrobe and lie in the cool water in a shaded spot for the majority of the rest of the day. Since it is 10 miles one way I like to stay there and relax for a few days before coming back out. There is a cabin with bunk beds at the springs that is first come first serve as well as a few other lesser buildings that are the same, they also have cots. Anyways... My plan was to leave the day after Christmas, but as I said the roads were closed, Highway 33 where the trailhead is, and the I-5. So I waited. The I-5 is a main artery of California, and the part that was closed was a mountain pass, there is always a line of trucks heading over it regularly. The 33 is a windy 2 lane road that is not made for commercial trucks. On the day after Christmas (Thursday) a truck decided he would try the 33, right before the truck reached the road block it fell over the edge off a cliff into the creek below (don't worry everyone survived). Now I feared that because of that crash the 33 would remain closed longer. The next day (Friday) I decided to just do a shorter backpacking trip to another spot, Whiteledge campground out of Sisar Canyon Road. I decided to bring enough food for 5 days just in case the 33 opened while I was driving up there. Before I left home I checked the Cal-Trans Website for road conditions and the 33 was still closed. As I was driving though Ojai, (pronounced O-high) on my way to Sisar Canyon Road I checked the website one last time, the 33 was open! I zoomed up the 33. Once I reached the turn off for Rose Valley Recreational Area the mountainsides turned white with snow and where covered in families with children sledding, building snowmen and having snowball fights. Soon the road filled with snow and only 2 wheel ruts were all the pavement I could see. All the people disappeared behind me as I pushed on into the snowy landscape. Only three other cars were at the parking area for the trailhead, one of them soon left, and at the other two cars were other backpackers getting ready to also head into the snowy wilderness. Each group consisted of two people. Both groups started out before I did. But I soon met up with one of the groups, a guy and girl, not far from the trailhead at the first river crossing. We crossed together. The river was only mid shin deep but it was freezing. The three of us continued on together, trudging though snow that was just a few inches deep. In places the snow had already melted and mud took its place. By the time we reached a snow covered, undeveloped campground about a mile and a half in they decided they would stop for a break. I continued and could feel my boots beginning to get damp inside, the constant snow was starting to seep into them. I have created a method to describe the wetness of hiking boots in inclement hiking conditions; level 1 damp, 2 wet, 3 soggy, 4 squishy. Anyone who has had wet boots knows the squishy feeling. It wasn't long after I left the first group that I came across the second group of two, this time it was a father and son and they were way over packed. The son had already developed a blister and I could tell just by looking at the fathers pack that the tent he had lashed to the outside was a full on car camping tent. The father greeted me and asked, “Have you been here before?” “Yes I have.” I answered. “Do you know if there is a better site further up the trail?” He inquired. I told him there was a much better campground. The son then asked, “How much further is it to there?” “If you have a map we can figure it out.” The dad pulled a map from his pack and opened it. “We are here,” I pointed to a sharp bend in the dotted line, “Bear Creek campground is here.” I pointed to a labeled red triangle further on. “Is it better than here?” The father asked. I could tell he was really hurting with his over packed pack and didn't really want to continue but he also didn't really want to camp in this snow covered site. “It's larger with nice fire pits, and more wood to collect for a fire, its lower in elevation so there is a chance that there will be less snow there, but I don't know that for sure.” I told them and then added, “I don't want you to over do it.” pointing to his pack. The two decided that they would try to make it to bear creek, so I wished them happy trails and told them I might see them there. Then I continued on alone. After another half mile through snow my boots had reached the soggy mark, I still had a mile left to Bear Creek and 7 miles left to reach the hot springs. After another half mile my boot and socks were now squishy. The snow had diminished somewhat and the mud became more slippery and sticky, clinging to my boots and making them heavier. By the time I reached Bear Creek the snow was completely gone. The sun was close to setting behind the ridgeline and once that happened the temperature would drop. I had 2 river crossings left and 6 and a half miles to go and with my squish boots and with the approaching cold night the safest thing to do was to stop here and get a fire going to dry my boots and socks out. I would have to go the rest of the way tomorrow. (Saturday) I gathered a large pile of wood. Then I broke that down into small medium and large pieces, keeping the small and medium stuff off the damp ground. I found some dry fibrous cottonwood bark that would be great for catching a spark from my flint and put that in my pocket to keep it dry. Once I had enough I prepared the fire pit; I scraped away the top layer and put two flat rocks down to keep the dry bark and kindling off the damp ash. I built the wood pile up on the rocks and once it was ready I sparked it with my flint, once a spark caught and flames jumped up. I slowly feed it and gently breathed life into it until it was roaring good enough to live on its own. By this time the guy and girl I had been hiking with arrived and, seeing the fire commented how nice it looked. I invited them to join me by the it. They said they would later after they had their camp set up. An hour or so later the father and son showed up and after dropping pack the boy came over immediately and warmed himself by the fire. I gladly welcomed him. That night the five of us enjoyed the fire together. Once the other retired to their tents for the night I banked the coals and let the fire die down, then I covered it with rocks. I slept outside with no tent. I had 3 layers of clothes on and a 0 degree bag and for most of the night I was warm but around 3 AM or so the temperature dropped and I shivered the rest of the night. At sunrise I got the fire going again with out needing the flint, since I had banked the coals the night before. The father and son joined me again and I found out that it was the sons (he was 15) first time and the dads first time in 30 years. The son was miserable, he was freezing, his feet were numb from the cold and once warmed up his blisters hurt. I told him to not let one bad experience out here ruin backpacking for him forever, and that with proper gear and conditioning it was really fun. Before he warmed up and while he was still shivering and huddled over the fire I grabbed my half frozen water bottle and showed it to him, “Check it out it's only half frozen ,” I said, “Do you know what that means?” I asked him. “No.” he answered sounding confused. “It means its only half cold.” I replied. The dad laughed loudly and the kid just stared and then turned back to the fire. Later the dad gave me some of their extra meals and once they were packed up they headed out. I layed my frosty sleeping bag and pack out on a rock in the sun to defrost and dry out. Once it was I packed up and made my way towards where the guy and girl were camped since that was where the second river crossing was. They had also decided to head back, but were not packed up yet. The river here was wider and faster than it was at the first crossing. I didn't want to cross it by myself just in case I slipped and fell in. I explored up stream to find a better crossing, but found none so I headed back to the main crossing. By that time another group of 4 had showed up and so we crossed the knee deep river together. I stayed close to them until the we reached the third and final crossing. Here we crossed together again. This was the deepest crossing and came up to my mid thigh. Once we were all safely across I let them take off and I took my time. From here on I hiked alone. The snow and mud that soaked my boots the day before stayed in the past and the majority of the trail was dry. Hours later I reached the campsite at the hot springs. The group of four were already set up near one of the out buildings and I set up camp in the cabin. No one else was here, just the five of us. I ate my daily meal, then I headed up a steep trail toward the springs. As I passed by their camp they joined me and we all walked the steep path together. Sunset was close and the light on the ridgeline across the river valley grew warm as the light on our side faded. As we climbed higher I turned around to see the view and the last guy in line was perfectly silhouetted against the ridge. I had just seconds to get the shot before he faded into shadow completely. I didn't even have time to adjust any camera settings, so I hoped I got it. We soaked in the 100 degree water for about 2 hours before heading back down the trail in the dark. The 4 of them invited me to join them around their fire that night and so I did. I retired to the cabin around 10 pm to finally go to sleep. I was awoken twice that night to a rat scurrying about inside the cabin. In the morning (Sunday) I went back to the springs for another soak. The weather forecast predicted a 50% chance of rain on Sunday night on through Monday. With how deep the river had been on the way in, if it rained the water level would rise, and if it rained it would melt the snow and that would raise the river even more. I really want to stay here at least 2 more day to just relax, but I also don't want to get stuck here because of the river rising. So I decided to leave and head out today. By the time I got back to camp the 4 of them had already left, and I was alone. I packed up, ate breakfast and headed out. I crossed the first river crossing by myself, and when I reached the second one another backpacker was already there so we crossed together. Bear Creek campground was abandoned. I took a break here and the other backpacker continued. From here on the snow that had been covering the trail on the way in was now all melted and in it's place was soupy, sticky, slippery, messy, endless mud. It stayed that way until the third river crossing. Once on the other side the snow returned. For the first 2 crossings I removed my boots and socks, for this last one I just left them on. My car was less than an 8th of a mile away and my mud caked boots needed a good cleaning. When I reached my car the parking lot had a number of people in it playing in the snow. I took my pack and shoes and socks off, unzipped my pant legs and turned them into shorts and put flip flops on. The temperature was a warm 45 degrees (Fahrenheit). Everyone else was all bundled up with their fuzzy hoods and puffy jackets and here I am dressed like its a hot summer day at the beach, shorts, short sleeves and sandals. People were looking at me like I was nuts. (I probably am.) It was an awesome trip and I loved every second. By the way, that predicted 50% chance of rain never happened, not a single drop. I could have stay 2 more day at the springs.