Am I Nuts?
As one’s obsession towards peak bagging begins to steer towards a certain degree of insanity it is only a matter of time before the inevitable happens. Not that you can’t live a normal life, go to work and tend to your obligations and responsibilities; but you begin looking with envy at other’s mountaineering accomplishments and start envisioning how they stack up compared to your own. Some might begin to question their skills, maybe doubt their dedication or some might even scoff and say, “ I could do that.” For many this can be the start of a fantastic journey. Fresh goals are established, new equipment purchased, and more time and energy is devoted to improving skills and conditioning. For some though, they fail to realize the jump from a novice outdoorsman to an expert mountaineer takes time, experience and most of all a little bit of sanity. When this is disregarded it often leads to the old idiom “biting off more than you can chew.”
I, for one, have never been much afraid of a challenge. Maybe my brain is wired wrong or something but I’ve always felt I could accomplish just about anything if I put my mind to it. During high school wrestling, I exercised and starved myself like crazy to make weight. In the Marine Corps, I was always a 300 PFT’er and though under-sized I played scrumhalf on the All-Marine and All-Armed Forces Rugby Teams. During college, I worked full-time and still managed to get straight A’s, all while taking at least 20 hours each semester. This is not a list to brag or gloat but merely to show the wide-range of goals I had set and worked to accomplish throughout my life. Maybe success does breed success, but after last weekend one thing is for certain, peaking bagging is a different animal and therefore needs to be held to a different standard when it comes to accomplishing peak bagging goals.
I started attacking the San Diego County Chapter of the Sierra Clubs’ County Peaks List with fury right around the New Year. Without fail, every weekend and even sometimes at lunch during the workweek, I made a selection, did a little research and hit the trail to bag my peak. After running out of peaks within close proximity to my house and work in the Rancho Bernardo/Poway area, I knew it was time to start branching out. Having a newborn at home and not wanting to venture too far, I set my sights on bagging Agua Tibia Mountain and Eagle Crag in the Agua Tibia Wilderness just east of Temecula. Armed with the usual, helpful SP beta, I believed I was ready to tackle the “25” miles of fun and adventure. Plus I had read Bob Burd’s Trip Report in which he bagged my two peaks and a third in about 9 hours, couldn’t I do the same?
The recent storms in southern California had unleashed their might and left the areas’ mountaintops snow-covered and looking spectacular. I had heard the Palomar area had been blanketed with nearly a foot of snow, and so for the first time in my life I was going to carry and maybe use snowshoes. I had been in communication with Woodzy about maybe getting together and climbing, but he couldn’t make it and I was left to explore the mountains myself. I knew it wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to head out alone but I wasn’t too worried. The area seemed pretty popular and others were sure to be around, plus the route was mostly on trail and after reading other’s trip reports nothing but success was on my mind.
The morning started out well enough. I arrived at the Dripping Springs trailhead parking lot right around 6 am, cinched up my pack and headed south past the empty campground to the trailhead. A thin layer of fog hung in the air but I could still see the surrounding hills as the darkness slowly parted and made way for the sun as it crept closer to the horizon. I signed in at the trailhead register, glanced at a few pages and noted the areas frequent activity from the amount of signatures. Not wishing to waste time, I snapped a few photos and was on my way.
Just past the trailhead signs, I crossed over the supposedly “seasonal” Arroyo Seco Creek. It was full, noisy and flowing quite well. Near the water’s edge was a sign stating, “Cross Here” but with no rocks or logs in sight I elected to cross using some boulders about 15 feet upstream. Back on the trail, I continued quickly uphill. Before I knew it I was at the Dripping Springs/Wild Horse Trail junction. After a quick glance at the sign, I steered right and started the 7.2 mile trek to Agua Tibia Mtn. I climbed up a series of switchbacks that took me southwest; over and around a small knob, leaving me sweeping views of the Temecula Valley below, San Gorgonio to the north, San Jacinto to the northeast, and the San Gabriel Mountains far to the northwest.
As I continued on, the landscape flattened for a bit, I crossed a small, seasonal steam and then started to climb again. Ascending the switchbacks that directed me slightly southwest, I could see Agua Tibia Mountain straight ahead and the snow-covered north flank of Eagle Crag to the southeast. Around 3,500 ft, I came across my first traces of snow. Slowly but surely the entire trail became snow. Still hard from the night’s freezing temperatures I was able to continue on with ease. At last I came upon an oak grove and a small meadow. The trail area became wide, almost road-like but mostly overgrown with vines and shrubs. A small sign signaled the Palomar-Magee Trail junction and I headed left, that’s when my problems began.
To say the trail was overgrown would be an understatement. Live trees, dead ones, shrubs, vines and any other earthly object that could inhabit the Palomar-Magee trail area, was obviously flourishing. I plowed through the frozen brush impeding the trail with the intensity of an NFL running back, except having to stop numerous times to unhook my pack that snagged on wayward branches. I tried to follow what remained of the trail for as long as I could but the snow was getting deeper and brush thicker, so I snapped on my snowshoes and decided to plow straight through the mayhem towards the peak.
As I battled through the thorny ceanothus and spiny-leafed holly, over boulders and around dead, burned down trees I finally reached the peak. Two large boulders, spaced roughly 50 feet apart marked the summit. I dropped my pack and snowshoes and clambered up both the Class 2.5 rocks. The views were nice but the effort hardly justifiable with the bushwhacking it took to reach the summit. I found a couple of USGS markers and the tin can summit register, which was located almost directly centered between the two boulders but more towards the western side of the peak. After signing the climber’s log, I elected to eat my PB&J sandwich, an orange and granola bar and start cutting into the next 5 miles of the trek to reach Eagle Crag.
From the summit I could see the trail below as it wound its way around the southwest side of the peak before heading back towards the east. With this in mind I set out heading south from the peak around 10 am and caught up with the trail in no time. From this point to the Crosley Saddle the trail was fine, still overrun but it had obviously seen some use and the plowing was kept to a minimum. When I reached Crosley Saddle I was seriously contemplating turning it in, heading back down the Wild Horse Trail to my car and leaving Eagle Crag for another day. I had told my girlfriend that I would be home around 3, the miles were adding up quickly and I was running behind but something inside just wouldn’t let me quit.
From the Crosley Saddle I could see Eagle Crag and it really didn’t look that far. It might have been 2 miles away on a map but the distance looked much shorter from where I was standing. Plus, when I looked at the map, the Wild Horse Trail, which I intended to take back to the trailhead, looked to be mostly down hill and not as long as I expected. I could surely make up for lost time then. With that in mind I tucked my chin and started up the grade of the Cutca trail heading for Eagle Crag. As the trail wound it’s way around the hills, the snow got deeper, and my pace got much slower. I slipped on my snowshoes thinking they might help but deep inside something didn’t feel quite right. I kept calculating and recalculating the mileage in my head, telling myself I would be done soon, but I had never tried to tackle such a long trek in a single day and without proper preparation it seemed to finally be catching up to me.
Around every corner I prayed that it was the last. I was searching diligently for a duck that marked a gully that would lead to the summit, but I just wasn’t spotting it. I began to panic a bit, thinking I might have missed it and now I was screwed for sure. It seemed like I had walked far beyond a couple of miles and then I spotted it. I wasn’t sure at first but thought, “what the hell.” There it was, a pile of rocks and it was near a gully, if that wasn’t it, I was pretty sure I was going to turn around anyways. After surveying the gully for what looked like the safest and easiest route, I headed up.
The snow was fairly deep and powdery but the crampons on the snowshoes gave me the extra traction I needed as I struggled to climb the gully. Beta said the best route was to the left of the gully but that route looked to be choked out with deadfalls and large boulders and the right side seemed to be wide open and less steep. I went with my gut and slowly picked my way up the right-side slope. As I neared the top, the drainage veered even more to the right. Not sure if that would leave me too far right of the summit I continued on straight. As I topped out and reached the ridge above I glanced to both my left and right. To my right the summit was obvious. Eagle Crag sat directly west from where I was, along the same ridge with almost a sheer drop-off on its south face. If I would have followed the drainage up from the gully it would have lead me almost directly to the base of the summit. However, it was an easy enough to follow the ridge and I was at the summit in no time.
In reality, the little climb to Eagle Crag had taken me quite awhile. By the time I signed the register, snapped some photos, ate a snack, and called my girlfriend to tell her I might be a little late it was just after 1 pm. My little jaunt had already taken over 7 hours; I was only halfway done and I had only traveled roughly 13 miles. I don’t know how I kept telling myself that I could make it back to the trailhead by 3, because that was just ridiculous thinking. I kept arguing to myself that it was all downhill, but come on! Another 12 miles in 2 hours, who was I kidding? Snapping back to the task at hand I knew I had better get moving. As fast as was safely possible, I slid (semi-glissaded) down the gully to the Cutca trail and hobbled on my way. After what seemed like years of walking I finally reached Crosley Saddle. From here I turned north and started back down to the trailhead via the Wild Horse Trail.
Is Death An Option?
The trail swung back and forth around the hillsides, mostly descending but also ascending, many times when I thought it didn’t need to. As time on the trail wore on, my joints in my knees were starting ache, my left hip (which has never been hurt before) was aching and my hamstring and calf muscles were starting to cramp. I was sucking down the water like crazy, grubbing on orange slices, and I even picked up an old stick to help alleviate the pressure of walking, but nothing seemed to help. I tried jogging to see if that would help, but that just made it hurt more. To make matters worse, when the Wild Horse Trail intersected with the Old Crosley trail I continued on the wrong path until I came upon a sign that said “No Trespassing.” Pissed off, embarrassed and hurting to all hell I backtracked to the junction and rediscovered the right trail.
Slowly the sun started to disappear behind the hills around me and I knew it was getting late. I checked the map to verify my location and for some reason the trail on the topo was nowhere near the route the actual trail was taking. Every switchback marked on the map was greatly shortened and therefore gave me a false sense of distance. Each corner I rounded led to another and then another. It seemed like the trail had been extended by miles and at the rate I was going I was never going to finish. I was getting tired, my body was hurting and my mind was slowly leaving me. I knew I was in trouble.
My sudden lack of hope and motivation didn’t have the effect I was hoping for and if anything it probably slowed my progress. I wanted to curl up somewhere, take a nap and hike out later but luckily I didn’t. Maybe it was thoughts of mountain lion attacks, my girlfriend and baby at home, or a juicy cheeseburger awaiting me at Burger King but I kept on. By now darkness had overtaken the entire wilderness and I rummaged through my pack to find my headlamp. After flipping it on and adjusting the light, I chugged the rest of my water and continued on
The crashing sounds of water gave me hope that I was getting close. I knew the trail followed the Arroyo Seco down the canyon but I hadn’t heard the creek anytime recently and the noise brought me instant relief. My pace quickened and some of the pain seemed to disappear. I was almost done and finally moving with a purpose. After several more up, down, and arounds I finally reached the Dripping Springs/Wild Horse junction. A quick time after I was at the creek crossing and finally back at the trailhead.
I stumbled down the road through the campground and finally reached my car. I was beat. Not just physically but mentally. The death march had definitely taken its toll on me and I was sure glad it was over. I quickly called my girlfriend; let her know I was ok and that I would be home shortly. I could tell by her tone she wasn’t thrilled and who could blame her. I had told her I would be home by 3 and it was nearing 8 pm. I had bitten off more than I could chew this time and the only one to blame was myself. I had failed to realize that there’s more to peak bagging than just going out and climbing. It takes experience, skill and most of all sanity. I learned a valuable lesson from this trip and hope others who read this will also. Remember who you are and what your skills are, think about the task you are undertaking and what skills it requires, and lastly remember to not let envy of other’s adventures cloud your judgment and come between you and your sanity.