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502. Balconies Caves and High Peaks (05/07/06)

Hikers (32): Blinky, Bunny, Cindy M, Dinesh, Elaine X, Emmanuelle, Erinn, Eugene, George, Glen, Harvey, Hoy, Jinglan, JP, Julie, Lily, Lisa X, Nani, Nina, Padraig, Patrick D, Paul, Peter, Rachel, Ross, Rudi, Scott, Sharon A, Sparky, Steve, Walter, Wayne E
Distance: 9 miles
Rating: 3 difficulty, 9 beauty
Park info: Pinnacles National Monument south of Hollister

Write-up by Peter -- Pictures by George, JP, and Janice

The hike was a chaotic mess, but at the end of the day everyone survived, so we can call it a success ...

As expected, we were split up between two parking lots at the beginning of the hike due to lack of space for everyone to park. We hadn't even started yet, and there was already confusion in the air. I told the group that we should go ahead and do the INCH cheer now because we'd likely never see the other bunch.

1, 2, 3, ... INCH!

As we headed down the trail from Bear Gulch Visitor Center towards the Chalone Creek parking lot, Steve and Sparky separated from the main group and began walking along the main road. I called them to come back, but to no avail. A few seconds later a ranger drove up and told them to get the hell off the road. Steve ran back like an obedient puppy, but Sparky told the ranger off and kept on walking. I guess we know who has the cojones.

Some members of the group were asking me where we would hook up with the other group, and I told them there was a bridge down the creek where we would cross over and merge, but I could tell nobody believed me, especially as we kept walking further and further with no bridge in sight. Hmmmm. I was starting to have doubts myself. Just when I thought all was lost, lo and behold, there was the bridge with the rest of the group walking towards it. This worked out better than I had dared to hope!

Heading out on the Old Balconies Trail

We walked at a brisk pace towards the Balconies Caves. I was walking with one of the newbies, V (that's the letter V, not the Roman numeral five). Her knee was wrapped up as she had twisted it running, and she told me she may have to turn back. As we got to the caves, she (wisely) decided not to press on and headed back to the parking lot. Unfortunately, not enough miles for her to earn a prestigious INCH leaf, but there will be other opportunities in the future.

The rest of the group entered the caves whooping and hollering. Even Steve, who had planned to take the wimpy bypass trail, went in -- not because he came to senses, but because he missed the turnoff. As expected, there was a big traffic jam inside the cave. I casually mentioned that this would not be a good time for an earthquake, and suddenly everyone went silent and picked up the pace. Good thinking!

Intrepid hikers vanish into the cave

Once out of the cave, I waited for the others to come through. Hoy sat with me for a few minutes, then decided to press on ahead. A few minutes later George and the rest of the gang emerged. Some of them had not brought flashlights, so George's hand-cranked flashlight had come in mighty handy.

George leads the lost souls back to daylight

From there, it was less than a mile over to the Chaparral area for our lunch break. I thought George and I would be the last ones there since we had waited for everyone to come out of the caves, but there were about 8-9 people missing! Hmmmm. Less than halfway through the hike, and already down one-quarter of the people. Not an acceptable loss ratio.

As we sat there scratching our heads and trying to figure out where they were, they began to appear one by one. Some of them (Blinky, Hoy, JP) had taken the wrong trail after the caves and had backtracked up the bypass trail. D'oh! I guess it was now an official INCH hike. Some of the others (Julie, Dinesh) had stopped to take touristy pictures. This is INCH, dammit!

Nice panoramic view as we stopped for lunch

The only person unaccounted for Lisa. We guessed that she had bypassed the Chaparral area and kept on going towards the High Peaks. I reminded everyone which trails to take from here (even though I know some would intentionally skip them -- more on this later), and we headed out.

OK now, this is the trail you're supposed to take!

The group was hiking at a good pace up the switchbacks towards the High Peaks. It was a warm day, and we were soon huffing and puffing and sweating bullets, but kept on going. The good news is that we did catch up with Lisa, so everyone was temporarily accounted for once again.

I caught up with the lead group after the tunnel, where they had stopped to rest. I kept on going and they soon followed. I managed to keep the lead most of the way to the top, but I knew it couldn't last. I began to run out of gas, and Ross, Steve, and Harvey blew past me. I hate those guys.

Once up at the top, I slowed the pace to allow myself to catch my breath before climbing up the dreaded handrail. It seemed to be easier than in the past -- maybe I'm finally getting better at this! Walt would not be so fortunate -- more on this later. Once past the handrail area, we saw some great views of condors flying around at the top. Some came very close, and we could almost touch them. Hopefully someone caught them on camera.

The dreaded handrail to heaven

On last year's trip, I noticed that there was an unofficial trail leading from the bench and restroom area at the top up to the highest point. Well, it's now been made into an official trail, complete with signpost, so I took it all the way up and joined Steve, Rudi, and Harvey at the top. Ross was still hanging back with the condors.

After we'd had our fill of the view and were thoroughly baked under the hot sun, we headed back down to join the others down by the bench. From the original 32 that started out, we were down to about 10 at this point. Woo-hoo! We lost two-thirds of the troop.

As we set out, I reminded the gang to head to the reservoir, not straight back to Bear Gulch Visitor Center. Guess what -- nobody got lost and all 10 of us made it to the reservoir!!! Wow!

After a brief rest under a tree to enjoy the cool breeze coming off the water, we headed down into the bat caves. The first set of caves were a little disappointing, but fortunately the lower caves were open, so there was more to the adventure. It was a tight squeeze getting into the lower caves and we had to get down on all fours at one point, but it as well worth it. Nice and dark, with a cool waterfall inside the cave. Oooooooh!

The last tunnel on the trail

Back into daylight, and from there it was a quick stroll back to the Visitor Center, where we saw Sparky and Walt sitting at a picnic table waiting for us. What the heck? Weren't they behind us? It turned out that Walt had balked at going up the handrail and had turned back. Since he was not familiar with the park, Sparky had gone back with him and they had come down the Condor Gulch Trail. Since I'm also afraid of heights, I fully sympathize with Walt. Steve was suggesting Black Leaves for the pair of them, but they bribed us with nice cold beer, so we forgave them. Boy, that Full Sail Amber tasted great on a warm afternoon. Aaaaaaaaah!

We began to settle in for a long wait for the others, but no! It turned out that almost all of them had shortcut as well and were already at the parking lot. Booooo!!!! I'm cutting the newbies and the unintentional shortcutters a little bit of slack, but just for the record:

The rest of the gang began to drift in .... Bunny and Glen, Emmanuelle and Patrick ... Dobby and his posse missed the lower caves, but good job in doing the whole marked trail. I'd better not find out that they took the shuttle bus from the visitor center to the Chalone parking lot! Honorable mention to JP, who took the wrong trail over to Condor Gulch, but then backtracked and went over the High Peaks, gave himself a mild concussion by knocking his head on the low rocks in the cave, and still made it back in, and to Nina who did most the second half of the trail by herself (assuming that others were behind her, but they had shortcut back in).

I never did the final tally because everyone had dispersed, but my sources tell me that everyone eventually made it back. Over 500 INCH hikes and no casualties yet!

Black Leaf for not completing the hike

p.s. I did not see Padraig on the second half of the hike. The last time I saw him, he was kneeling down in the long grass at Chaparral. I don't want to know what he was doing.

Check out George, JP, and Janice's cool pix.

Elaine X's 1st leaf
Erinn's 1st leaf
Eugene's 151st leaf (and shot) × 2
Lisa X's 1st leaf
Wayne E's 20th leaf

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