680. South Wilderness Loop (07/18/09)
Hikers (5): David, Diane, George, Jeff, Peter
Distance: 14 miles
Rating: 5 difficulty, 9 beauty
Park info: Pinnacles National Monument south of Hollister
Write-up by Diane -- Pictures by Jeff
Pinnacles Pig Fence -- a true story by Diane M.
Driving to Pinnacles, we saw the fire danger sign at the entrance posted as "Extreme." That was an apt warning for this hike, and of course one that we proceeded to ignore.
The hike got off to an auspicious start at the Bear Gulch Visitor Center as our hike leader christened the day with his 3rd brown leaf before 8 a.m.: one at home, one at the carpool spot, and one at the park restroom. Apparently Peter lives on a diet of bran muffins and beer.
The day was a bit on the warm side, around mid-70's at 8 a.m. Jeff had never done this particular INCH hike before, so I tried to energize him with exciting stories of the condors I had seen on High Peaks in the past. For some reason, he insisted they were all just turkey vultures with 12-foot wingspans that fooled me (and everyone else in the vicinity) at the time of the sightings. Some people just want to maintain an cool, unimpressed facade. What can you do?
We kept an eye out for Lin-Eric, our expected 6th compatriot, but never caught sight of him. My guess is that, in fit of sanity, he decided sleep in and skip the legendary Pig Fence when his alarm went off at some ungodly hour this morning. Sadly for him, he missed out on free parking day at Pinnacles. Finally writing off Lin-Eric as a no-show, we proceeded to the trailhead.
1-2-3-INCH, and we were off at a blistering pace set by our fearless hike leader! (That would be Peter.)
The first part of South Wilderness trail was fairly predictable: much scatological commentary dominated the conversation. Apparently Peter is an early-morning before-the office person, while Jeff is a mid-morning kind of guy. I was prepared for this scintillating edge-of-my-seat conversation, given that I was choosing to spend my Sunday with 4 boys. I think they were thoughtfully picking the "boy" topic that they felt would be least discomfiting and most fascinating to me. Who says INCH guys aren't considerate?
Things got interesting on South Wilderness trail when Peter spied a young mountain lion running across the trail up ahead. He wasn't 100% positive at first that it wasn't a very large lynx, but after describing the coloring and tail length, he got confirmation from George that this was most probably a mountain lion. George, David and I were suitably impressed and fearful. (Well, mostly I was the fearful one since I'm nicely snack-sized for a mountain lion.) Jeff, however, was blase about the whole matter. He claimed Peter had probably just seen a turkey vulture and mistaken it for a lion.
Soon after, we approached a shallow, narrow, slow-moving creek, about 5 inches high at its deepest point and likely to be cool and refreshing on a warm day. The boys suddenly panicked and unsuccessfully tried to find an alternate route. I easily crossed this creek using some rocks and barely got wet, Peter just sloshed through, but George, David and Jeff undressed lest their clothing get wet and/or changed afterwards when they did get even a drop of water on themselves. (Sorry ladies --- they showed nothing above the knees.) I can only attribute this bizarre and uncharacteristic behavior to latent PTSD from the mountain lion incident.
As we approached the Pig Fence and Jeff saw the unrelenting steepness and length, he did finally express emotion and awe. (I think this is a real breakthrough for him. Let's all be supportive.) The rest of us had tried to prepare him at Starbucks in Hollister in the morning, and I had joked this was not a hike on which he should carry heavy produce (as he has been known to do), but I don't think the unparalleled difficulty sunk in until he saw Pig Fence with his own eyes. Well, nothing to do but get started.
Pig Fence is about 2 miles of the hands-down, steepest and most continuous uphill I've ever done with INCH. After completing the grueling, sun-exposed, barbed-wire-laced, nearly completely uphill psuedo-trail, one has to keep an eye out for a vague use trail on the other side where one needs to hop the fence to continue to South Chalone Peak. Having overshot the hop-over point last year, I decided to wait after two long uphills for George to instruct further. The first to reach me was Jeff, whose thermometer read 108 degrees! It was only mid-morning, probably about 10:30 a.m. That couldn't be right. He moved under some shrubbery and eventually read a more reasonable (?) 101 degrees in the shade. David joined after that, and eventually so did George, who reported that Peter was his usual charming self, responding to George's commentary on the scenery with pleasantries such as "$* you." To my sadness, George also reported that we had a couple more steep uphill portions before we could leave Pig Fence behind for the day. Once Peter arrived, we gradually continued on one-by-one.
[Somewhere along the way, David point out for me where exactly on Pig Fence had earned his brown leaf last time. Again with the thoughtful scatological conversation! I only wished I was as good of a conversationalist as he & the other boys.]
Anyway, after the remaining 2 sections, I crossed the fence and waited for everyone to make sure this was the right place. (As it turned out, I had overshot at the exact same place again, but it was close enough that it wouldn't really matter.) Jeff arrived and started scouting around while we were waiting for the others. Then, to my shock and amazement, he pulled a giant watermelon out of his backpack and started carving it up! No wonder he lagged behind me on Pig Fence -- he was carrying heavy produce again! David eventually joined us to share in the feasting, and I spied George and Peter down below. They seemed pretty spent and demoralized, so to motivate them, I raised the watermelon so they could see what awaited them up ahead and did the watermelon dance for them. (Whatever Jeff may say, this was not a topless production.) George and Peter arrived to partake of the watermelon and Jeff, ever the solicitous host, fretted that the watermelon wasn't sweet enough, David and my comments to the contrary notwithstanding.
At this point in the hike, just as we had completed Pig Fence and enjoying Jeff's watermelon, Peter showed uncharacteristic, and possibly unprecedented, wisdom and maturity. The hike had had a later-than-last-time start and we taken a couple long breaks waiting for the group (including the watermelon break), which put the time at close to 1 p.m. Peter was nearly out of water already, and George was feeling the heat and had already decided to head back at the first opportunity, i.e., right after North Chalone Peak. Peter made the executive decision that the official hike route would also return to the Bear Gulch parking lot after North Chalone Peak. Who doesn't like a man who knows how to wield his power? Jeff was mildly disappointed, but David and I both shrugged and said any leaf earned by traversing the official INCH route is a respectable leaf. Jeff did contemplate doing the original route anyway, although this would have been logistically challenging since all the boys carpooled together, but eventually decided to stick with us because his main goal was to hit South Chalone Peak (where he had never been) on the way to North Chalone Peak.
Knowing the hike had been shortened to just one more uphill before the long, gradual descent, we took our time and had a nice long lunch break at North Chalone Peak. We had taken nearly 6 hours to cover 9-1/2 miles at that point, about half the typical INCH rate. As we were trading water among the "haves" and "have nots," I discovered that my CamelBak tubing was malfunctioning. (Turned out to be user error.) Jeff very helpfully advised "Suck harder, Diane." Were I not in semi-hero-worship mode from his earlier watermelon feat, I may have responded with pleasantries similar to Peter's along Pig Fence. At that time, however, Jeff could do no wrong in my eyes.
Everyone had a nice break in the shade and breeze of North Chalone Peak, where the "effective" temperature was only in the mid-90's with wind chill, and Peter in particular took the opportunity to assess his condition. Interestingly, he was somewhat annoyed about his dehydrated state, his periodic leg cramps, his lack of water, and the triple temperatures, but I did not see true angst on his face until he pulled out his snack pack and discovered his chocolate M&Ms in his trail mix had melted. While I did feel sympathy and sorrow for this tragedy, I also noted that he's not yet responsible enough to be trusted with real chocolate on his own. (Kids are probably okay, though.)
The remainder of the hike down Chalone Peak Trail, through Bear Gulch Caves, and back to the parking lot was fairly uneventful. We did finally see our first non-INCHERS -- a lone hiker and a young family -- on the short, flat, well-shaded trail between the Caves and the parking lot. I guess not even free parking can lure many visitors to Pinnacles when temperatures are in the triple digits. We arrived at the ranger station around 4 p.m., at which point George verified the Bear Gulch "official" thermometers showed 110 degrees in the sun and 102 in the shade. Given that it was now late afternoon and we were back in the valley, it's pretty clear the entire uphill elevation gain and descent was done with temperatures well into the triple digits. Intrepid! As Peter has pointed out in the past, intrepid and wise are at times mutually exclusive states.
As I drove off, I was glad to see Peter was recovering from the heat and back to his usual charming self. I bid farewell with a nice "See you later," and he responded with "See you in Hell." I guess that would be his next hike.
Peter's notes: I had checked the weather forecast for Hollister all week and it was predicting temps in the mid-80s, with a mid-afternoon high of 88. Seemed OK, and since the days are longer in summer, and knowing that the North Wilderness Trail was easy navigation these days, I figured a later start wouldn't hurt. Big mistake!! Did you read Diane's writeup? It was 110 degrees!!! 110. One hundred and ten. ONE HUNDRED AND TEN F__KING DEGREES!!! It's one thing if you know it's gonna be that hot, and are prepared for it, as we were at Grand Canyon and Death Valley, but we were expecting it to be in the 80's this day. Of course, this didn't bother Diane as she was skipping merrily along. It didn't seem to bother Jeff in the slightest as he hauled a damn watermelon up the mountain. David was doing OK too. George and myself were another story. We were staggering along the fence like a couple of punch-drunk fighters on rubber legs. We had to stop every few steps to catch our breath, and every quarter-mile or so collapse on the ground under a thorny bush to catch a little of the closest thing we had for shade. We were doing less than a mile an hour along the fence. It was brutal. It took 6 hours to do the first 9 miles of a scheduled 26-miler, and I was completely out of water by then. As I sat on the ground at North Peak, both my legs locked up. Man, was I in pain. The closest thing to this was the time my legs locked up when I finally made it to the top of Half Dome. This hike is similar in many ways, except instead of holding on to cables for dear life, you're holding on to a barbed ware fence. If it wasn't for David giving me water and Jeff giving me iced tea, I don't think I could have even made it back down to the Visitor Center. Even though it was downhill all the way, I was still struggling -- panting like a dog most of the way, and gulping down boiling water just to keep going. I had drank a gallon of water and not peed once in the last 4 hours. The heat reflecting off the trail was burning my face. I had to take a good rest at the reservoir just to gather up enough energy to make it the last flat mile back to the car. This has got to be one of the top 5 most unpleasant hikes I've done. Did I mention it was 110 f__king degrees??? Back at the ranger station, they explained to us that the temperature at the park in the summer is usually 20 degrees hotter than Hollister. Now they tell us? We confirmed this by the temperature reading on George's car as we drove home. Key learning: Don't schedule hikes at the Pinnacles in July, dumbass!! p.s. When I got home, I ate a roast beef sandwich that I had carried in my scorching backpack the entire day, and I am happy to report there were no ill effects. My legs may be weak, but my stomach is still strong.
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