Santa Cruz: it doesn’t suck

The closest I get to surfing

Though I spent years on the California coast before Dr. Dirtbag, I never ventured north of Malibu or south of San Jose. That has changed this winter with my spending significant time in the Santa Cruz area. While I have not been peak-bagging, I spent plenty of time outdoors as I normally do in the winter, engaged in shorter local fitness activities. Santa Cruz is about the same size as Santa Fe and, because it is bounded by the ocean and mountains, anywhere in the city is close to the periphery. The local mountains are low and undramatic, but surprisingly good for staying fit, with 2000 or so feet of relief from the ocean.

The climate, while far from tropical, is strongly moderated by the Pacific Ocean, making it possible to get out year-round. It is damp, though, making temperatures feel much colder than they do in the desert. I run in tights and mitts in the low 40s here, while I would normally wear shorts and thin gloves. Cycling is particularly hard on my hands, and I find myself wearing something more like my cross-country ski gear. It is particularly damp and cold in the redwood groves that follow most drainages, and there is a frequent inversion and occasional fog in the San Lorenzo. One can quickly go from being comfortable in short sleeves in the sun, to being deeply chilled in a “majestic” (i.e. dank and drippy) forest.

Running

The local coast is lined by roads and trails above the sea cliff, and frequently by sandy beaches below, all of which make decent flat running. There is also a network of trails in the surrounding hills, connecting local parks to form a defensive green belt. (Santa Cruz, like Boulder, has set aside surrounding undeveloped land in an effort to freeze itself as its current residents prefer and avoid being swallowed by a larger neighboring city. As it is already separated from San Jose and the Bay Area by mountains, and connected by only a single winding freeway, Highway 17, it is better-situated than Boulder, which is naturally separated from Denver by only grass and cows. Both cities have predictably expensive housing and a slightly cartoonish feel.)

I no longer have the speed I did when I last lived near the Pacific in LA and trained for road races, and doubt I will regain it, but it has nevertheless been fun to work on my flat running form at sea level. Both form and fitness should translate to the mountains in limited ways, and higher-intensity running is an efficient way to get my necessary exercise. And in the highly unlikely event that I race another ultra, I will be well on my way to adapting to that type of muscular and joint stress.

Cycling

I have ridden or raced bikes off and on for most of my life. This has often meant riding a road bike in places where there are only a couple of rides, some of them grim. For example, my normal ride in Houston began with ten straight miles along a busy multi-lane road out of the city, and ended with the same in the opposite direction; at least, on the return, I could judge the day’s pollution by whether or not I could see the skyscrapers. I still rode around 200 miles per week, enough to stay reasonably fit but not to be much good as a racer.

In contrast, Santa Cruz is a road cyclist’s paradise: Highway 1 along the coast has broad bike lanes and bearable traffic, Highland and Summit Roads parallel it along the crest of the hills, and many small residential and rural roads connect them. Thus one can ride loops of various lengths and difficulties, beginning with a climb and ending with a descent to the coast and a return via the coast, usually with a tailwind when headed south. I have so far visited Eureka Canyon, Soquel-San Jose, Mountain Charlie, Hutchinson, Zayante, Bear Creek, and Empire Grade Roads, plus the various roads connecting to Empire including Felton-Empire, Alba, Jamison, and Pine Flat. While a couple of these side roads are popular two-lane highways, many are unmarked and little wider than an asphalt driveway. With generally polite drivers and many fellow roadies, the overall cyclist vibe reminds me a bit of the Alps, though without the high peaks.

There are also both a network of fire roads and extensive single-track in the hills, though I have explored them less on my gravel bike. I have ridden fire roads in Nicene Marks and Henry Cowell, and seen many expensive full-suspension bikes both being ridden and riding on the back of people’s pickup trucks in those places and along Highway 9. One seemingly popular area is a network of bandit trails on the upper UCSC campus, which has been taken over by cyclists in the students’ absence.

2020 in review

Screwing around on rock

2020 was a hard and uncertain year for many of us, though my year was challenging and unstable in different ways from most people’s. In previous years I have been most successful in the mountains during the summer, generally from June through September, and less active in the winter and spring. This year was almost the opposite, with my best months in the winter and fall, for various external and internal reasons.

The year’s defining event, the novel coronavirus pandemic, scrambled my plans from March onward, and impacted my life less than most people’s but more than I anticipated. I had originally planned to return to the Alps this summer to climb the 4000-meter peaks as fast as possible under human power (i.e. biking between trailheads and not riding lifts). I was hoping to fund this expensive endeavor by writing a book and promoting it with slideshows during my spring travels. Both the trip and presentations things became increasingly unlikely and then impossible as the pandemic spread, leaving me without a main project for the summer. While I scrambled to put together some alternative goals, I was never truly inspired as I have been in the past.

Another defining event for some people was the California wildfires. They destroyed homes, torched beautiful wilderness areas (including the Huntington Lake area where I passed on my first bike tour), and filled the Owens Valley with smoke for most of the late summer and early Fall. The smoke, and the dry heat that preceded it, scuttled my backup plan to make something of the season, driving me east to the San Juans and southern Utah. This proved fortunate both athletically and socially, leaving me starting 2021 in a different and in many ways better place than I had anticipated. Unusually for me, I enter 2021 with a partner, a place to live, and plans for the winter and spring. I hope the new year is a similar time of reassessment and growth for you too, dear reader.

South America

Summit view on Ojos del Salado

My trip to the High Andes was the year’s mountaineering highlight. Between mid-December and mid-March I visited two new countries, rode over 3000 miles, and summited 21 peaks, including a dozen 6000-meter peaks (nine over 20,000 feet). The low number of peaks per day compared to e.g. my trip to the Alps can be excused by the facts that I was cycling between peaks, and that one often has to gain 15,000 feet to summit peaks from town in the high Andes. The peaks were only part of the journey, though, and I equally enjoyed the outgoing and laid-back people of rural Argentina. Both it and Chile are huge countries, ranging from the southern hemisphere equivalents of central Mexico (in the Atacama) to northern Canada (in the Tierra del Fuego). I saw only their central regions on this trip — roughly 25 to 42 degrees latitude, or north-central Mexico to southern Wyoming — so I hope to return to see both ends.

  • Puna de Atacama: Though it tested the limits of my endurance and sort of broke me, my two week crossing of the Puna de Atacama by bike, summiting seven 6000-meter peaks, was the unforgettable pinnacle of my trip. With only two natural water sources other than snow in the 300 miles between Fiambala and Copiapo, and nowhere to buy food, it is the harshest and most remote place I have traveled to climb, and peak-bagging there required maximum effort.
  • Mercedario: This was the first big Andean peak I did town-to-town, and the second-highest. I was still learning about how best to trade off between hiking and hike-a-bike, and met the only other bike mountaineer of my trip along the way. The climb was unremarkable, but typical of the high Andes for, among other things, its barren dryness.
  • Nevado de Famatina: This is a high and prominent peak seldom climbed by foreigners because it stands by itself, far from other 6000-meter peaks. Climbing it was less a mountaineering than a cultural experience, as I spent time before and after in the tiny town of Famatina, and got a ride with Argentinian tourists up to the remarkable La Mejicana mine near 14,000 feet on the peak’s side.

FKTs

Montgomery from south

Since 2012’s California Fourteener record, I have tried to set a few Fastest Known Times (FKTs) each year, and this year was no exception. I set new FKTs for the White Mountains Traverse and Buckskin to Paria Gulch, though the former was more of an “Only Known Time,” and the latter was soon crushed by an actual runner. However, I recognize that my advancing age makes these “records” increasingly meaningless and absurd. I am a decade past my peak athletic potential, and while mountaineering’s skill-heavy nature allows older athletes to remain competitive, I am more or less past that point. Rather than setting times on increasingly obscure and meaningless objectives, I should consider moving on.

My most rewarding FKT experience this year was probably helping my friend Renee set a record for the Sierra High Route in late August. She is a competent and driven all-around athlete, meticulously prepared, and a thoroughly decent person, so I was happy to see her both accomplish a personal goal and receive some recognition. The High Route is not my kind of objective — I tried backpacking it back in 2013 and wandered off-route on the second day — but it is a great route, and an impressive accomplishment to cover so much cross-country distance in 50-mile headlamp-to-headlamp days.

San Juan trip

Final tricky section

The San Juans are my favorite Colorado mountains: they are far from Denver’s hordes, beautiful in the fall with their turning aspens, and widely varying in character, ranging from the almost drive-up peaks around Silverton to the rugged and remote Weminuche. After being forced out of the Sierra, I spent most of a month there, tagging 88 peaks and visiting regions both familiar and new.

  • Cimmarons: I had seen these peaks many times while driving through Ridgway, but never visited until this fall. Though their rock is mostly rotten, they have some spectacular cliffs, vast aspen groves, and a few good scrambles, including Coxcomb.
  • Beartown: After years of chipping away at the remote Weminuche 13ers via dayhikes from pavement, I finally had the opportunity to tag many of the more mundane summits via an overnight from the northern Beartown trailhead. Thanks to Dan for providing both the vehicle to reach it, the motivation to lug in a tent, and the quick thinking to punch a mouse to death.
  • Vestal Basin: I normally think of Vestal Basin as a once-a-year approach, but I ended up doing it three times this summer: for an overnight with Ted, to tag the peaks between Tenmile and Noname Creeks, and to connect the Grenadiers from Arrow through Storm King. I am therefore probably done with this beautiful area for a few years, but I realized that, at only a few hours of easy headlamp, the approach is not something to dread.

Zion scrambles

What’s over there?

Though I had visited Zion on family trips growing up, I first scrambled there in 2013, doing the Guardian Angels and Tabernacle Dome. Coming from Red Rocks at the time, I was disappointed by the gritty sandstone and did not take much time to explore. Buzz Burrell clued me into the park’s scrambling potential this year, and I was not disappointed on my belated return visit. Coming a bit late in the season, my efforts were frustrated and cut short by cold mornings, short days, and snow, but I saw enough to make me want to return.

  • Cowboy Ridge to West Temple: This is a classic and fairly challenging linkup. I had previously done the standard route on Kinesava, but adding Cowboy Ridge and West Temple significantly upped the length and difficulty. The hand-crack crux on Cowboy was unavoidable and challenging, but secure, while the crux on West Temple was shorter and scrappier. Connecting the two involved some unexpected difficulties descending from Kinesava along the ridge.
  • East Temple: This one was a bit scary, in part thanks to some lingering snow and wetness on the crux upper slabs. Though the route is improbable, bighorn sheep apparently use it to visit the summit, keeping it much freer of nasty desert shrubbery than West Temple.
  • Lady Mountain: Tourism was a lot more fun in the 1920s and 1930s, when women in full skirts could climb 4000 feet from the Zion Lodge to the summit of Lady Mountain via an improbable route consisting of natural climbing up to class 3, steel handlines, chipped steps, and a couple of ladders. This grownup version of Angels Landing, now long decommissioned, is still a fun low fifth class route, for which I want to return to Zion and attempt an FKT. Maybe next fall…

Bike touring stats, part 2

For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the second (blue) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Osorno, are 1625 miles and 103,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 47 days. That’s about 35 miles and 2200 feet per day, which is not so bad considering that some of those miles were over ridiculous terrain like the Paso de las Damas.

Unfortunately I only summited seven peaks, which makes me question whether I can still call myself a peak-bagger. This was partly because I did not have a “mother lode” of peaks like the Puna de Atacama on this leg, but mostly because I was burned out on high-altitude choss. By the time I reached Bariloche, where both the rock and my motivation greatly improved, COVID-19 and the world’s response to it cut my travels short. I explored the Andes from about 25 to 41 degrees south on this trip, but there is a lot more left to see. Hopefully I will be able to return sometime in the future. With almost 3000 miles under my belt on this trip, I can almost call myself a real bike tourist, though I’m nowhere close to matching Daniel, Marilyne, Kevin, or some of the others I have met down here.

Some software reviews

I was a flip phone holdout until late 2017, I have since become utterly dependent upon my smartphone (an iPhone SE, the last of the pocket-sized phones), and all of my international trips would have been somewhere between difficult and impossible without it and a few apps. I am also utterly dependent upon a few pieces of desktop software and web pages.

maps.me

Maps.me is a convenient way to use OpenStreetMap data offline for both mapping and route-finding. The maps are usually good and reasonably complete, even in small South American towns. The route-finding is quirky, though. Sometimes it will not see roads that clearly exist on the map; other times it will suggest utter nonsense. While it claims to be able to plan routes for cars, bikes, and pedestrians, the car routes tend to be the least nonsensical. It can usually be trusted for short distances within cities, but you should always double-check longer routes.

Peakbagger

This has been my go-to offline mapping program for several years. It offers offline USGS/USFS topo maps within the United States, and usable computer-generated “global topos” elsewhere. These topos can be downloaded either for the area around a peak, or for that around an arbitrary GPX track. The app also keeps track of peak-bagging statistics, for people who play that game. However, its offline maps have always been unreliable to download over slow connections, and have recently stopped working for me entirely. I am currently looking into other options, and have high hopes for the CalTopo app currently being developed.

CalTopo

I do all my route-planning with CalTopo, which has a variety of maps and satellite images for the whole world. I used the free version for a long time, but recently became a subscriber, partly to support the project, and partly to eliminate some restrictions on the app. While the iOS app is still a work in progress, I hope to someday use it to replace Peakbagger for my offline topo needs.

windy.com

Windy has horrible, useless graphics on both its website and mobile app, but I use it anyways because it provides worldwide point forecasts from three different models: the European ECMWF, considered the best in the world; the American GFS, which is also good; and Meteoblue, which focuses on mountains and has higher-resolution models for some ranges (e.g. the Alps). Meteoblue’s summit temperatures seem to be most accurate, while ECMWF may be better at wind speeds. Comparing the three models is a good way to get a rough idea of forecast reliability: the closer they agree, the more you can trust the forecast.

Bike touring stats, part 1

For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the first (red) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Copiapo, are 1350 miles and 80,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 51 days. That is a pathetic-sounding average of only 26.5 miles and 1570 feet of gain per day, but I also did some peak-bagging on the side…

Along the way, I tagged 14 real summits plus Cerro de la Gloria in Mendoza. That’s a pathetic average of only one peak every 3.6 days, but I also did some bike riding…

Back from the Puna de Atacama

Summit view on Ojos del Salado

I had expected the two weeks spent crossing the Puna de Atacama from Fiambala to Copiapo, climbing as many 6000-meter peaks as possible along the way, to be my trip’s physical and psychological crux, and it absolutely delivered. In two weeks, I cycled over 300 miles, and climbed seven 6000-meter peaks: San Francisco, Incahuasi, El Fraile, El Muerto, Ojos del Salado, Tres Cruces Sur, and Tres Cruces Norte. I finally struggled into Copiapo just before dark, after a 120-mile 13-hour ride that would have been much easier without a near-constant headwind for the last 80 miles. While I had anticipated the difficulty, I was surprised by the afternoon snows, which improved the scenery, but made some of the climbing crushingly slow. I suppose I am glad I did it, but I am more glad that it is done. I will write more about the experience over the coming days, or possibly weeks.

2019 in review



This was a year of extremes, of highs and lows and novelties, in which I accomplished a fair amount, though not as much as I had hoped. In the winter and spring, I managed to do some quality backcountry skiing. In the summer, I had a mostly successful trip to the Peruvian Andes, though I was shut down by unseasonable weather toward the end. I summited Tocllaraju, Chopicalqui, and numerous lower peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, explored the seldom-visited Cordillera Raura, and gawked at the too-hard-for-me peaks of the Huayhuash. These were my first climbs above 6000 meters and 20,000 feet, and included both serious glacier travel and some moderate technical climbing. In the fall, I experimented with combining peak-bagging and bike-touring, finding that I enjoy the variety.

In the end, though, I was sharply reminded of two fundamental rules: “know your place” and “focus on your strengths.” My place is in the mountains, wandering alone through new lands while going up and down piles of rock and snow. As another winter arrives, I find myself more homeless and rootless than usual, so rather than doing who-knows-what who-cares-where in the western United States, I am headed to Chile and Argentina. There I will travel by foot and bike through the high Andes, climbing as many peaks as I have time and energy to reach. Hopefully that will include Ojos del Salado, the highest peak in South America climbable without an exorbitant permit fee.

As usual, I will be traveling with no corporate or institutional support, mostly making do with what I have. Thanks to Ted’s generous donation of frequent flier points, the trip itself should end up cheaper than spending the winter in the States. That does not include a handful of mandatory gear upgrades, such as a bike trailer, tent, and miscellaneous bike parts. After multiple rejections for American Alpine Club grants, it seemed pointless to continue applying; and while I at least heard back from them, Big Agnes, Hilleberg, and Nemo all declined to support my project with a free or discounted tent. If you have enjoyed following my travels over the past decade, please consider supporting them by telling your friends about my books: 40 Classic Scrambles and California’s Fourteeners.

Shepherd and Tioga Crests

Shepherd and Tioga Crests across Saddlebag Lake

I wanted to make the most of the long drive up to Yosemite by spending a few days tagging random peaks around Tioga Pass. My first targets were Shepherd Crest and Sheep Peak. I thought they fit well thematically, and could make a nice loop by starting at Saddlebag Lake, traversing Shepherd Crest, dropping south to climb Sheep and its unnamed sub-peak, then climbing over the saddle south of Conness to return. I had plans for a couple more days in the area afterwards as well. Unfortunately, a combination of cold and wind forced me to lower my ambitions on the first day, and then car trouble scuttled the rest of my plans. Such is life.

I had just as cold a night as expected up at the Saddlebag Lake trailhead, with only one other car-camper for company, and took my time over breakfast and coffee before stubbornly setting out wearing all of my summer mountain clothing. It was a cold, windy, shady hike/jog around the lake, though it was almost pleasant once I reached the sun near Greenstone Lake. I was both worn down and hungry from the previous day’s unusual amount of flat running “down” Lyell Canyon, so I walked where I would normally have jogged, and ate about half my food.

Shepherd Crest and Steelhead Lake
At the south end of Steelhead Lake, where I expected to start the cross-country, I instead found a fairly clear use trail heading northwest, almost directly toward Shepherd Crest. The trail disappeared in the final talus below the northern end of the ridge connecting it to North Peak, but the talus and sparse krummholtz did not offer much resistance. The wind, however, picked up unpleasantly, forcing me to side-hill left of the ridge for some shelter.

North, Conness, and Sheep from Shepherd
I headed straight up where the rock turns darker gray near the summit, quickly grabbing the register before hiding below the ridge to read it. I saw a couple of familiar names, added my own, then quickly put it back in its place. The wind seemed to be getting worse, with knock-you-over gusts across the ridge; clearly traversing the Crest would be miserable. I instead miserably retraced my steps, hating the wind until I was finally sheltered below the Shepherd-North ridge.

Saddlebag Lake and Dana from Shepherd
With lots of day left, I decided to tag Tioga Crest, a 1000-foot prominence peak on the other side of Saddlebag that I had planned to save for the morrow. I followed various trails almost to the north end of the lake, then went cross-country up the peak’s southwest ridge, following various game trails up mostly easy terrain. The supposed highpoint is on the far end of the long east-west crest, which I again traversed well below before heading straight up to the summit.

Excelsior and Lundy Canyon
Oddly, though Tioga Crest is slightly higher than Shepherd Crest, the wind was slightly less bad. I admired the drop into deep Lundy Canyon to the north, which held a substantial amount of snow on its north-facing slopes, and chossy, colorful Excelsior Mountain on the other side. I was pleased to see that the previous visitor had been fellow New Mexican and wanderer Guy Dahms, who I almost feel I have met after seeing his name on so many summits. The descent to Dore Pass and Saddlebag Lake was all at a pleasant angle, but not conducive to scree-skiing, so it took longer than expected. I should have jogged the trail/road around the east side of the lake, but felt more like walking.

I ate a late lunch, then looked around for an easy afternoon peak, settling on Gaylor Peak, just outside the park entrance station. I turned the key to start my car, and… click. I waited a bit, then tried again with the same result. I pushed and rolled my car into the sun, gave the engine a chance to warm up, and tried once more, with the same result. Shit.

Since it was downhill from where I was to the Mobil station, I figured that if I could coast I could reduce the cost of the tow, and perhaps even push-start my car. The first obstacle was getting out of the parking lot, which had a slight flat/uphill section. After some experimentation, I found that if I chocked the wheels with wedge-shaped rocks, I could rock the car back and forth to gain ground, quickly kick the nearest wheel’s chock forward, then walk around the car to advance the others. Sometimes I would gain only an inch, sometimes six or eight. I had about twenty feet to go to reach the downhill, but I also had nothing else to do all afternoon, and could use the strength training.

I had been doing this for a bit over an hour, and wasn’t especially interested in help, but when one of the other hikers noticed what I was doing and offered, I did not refuse. With two of us pushing bobsled-style, we quickly got the car over the hump, and I jumped in to steer and brake. Driving was a bit more work without power steering or brakes, but perfectly safe at 20 MPH or less on the way down toward the Tioga Pass road. Unfortunately, there is one flat stretch about a half-mile before the intersection that was too long to coast. With my last momentum, I pulled to the side of the road, then prepared for another cold night, preparing myself to bleed money the next day. Cars suck sometimes.

Update

Since it has been awhile since I have written anything, I figured I would just drop a quick note to let people know that I’m okay, and that while the blog is dormant, it is not dead. I should hopefully have something more interesting to say in about a week.

Update: For those of you waiting for books, I am very sorry for the delay. I will mail them out next Thursday.

Teton miscellany and summer plans

The Ranch welcomes guests

As I have every year since 2011, I have spent the first part of June at the American Alpine Club’s Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch. After a week of staining cabins (and myself), fixing bikes, and other miscellaneous repair work, I normally stick around for a week or so to socialize and play in the mountains. I have done more of the former than the latter this year, partly due to inclement weather, and partly because of the rest of my summer schedule.

For the first time in nine years coming to the Ranch, I woke two days in a row to an inch or so of fresh snow in the valley. While it melted quickly below 9000 feet, the new snow stayed around awhile in the mountains. This has meant snowy rock routes, postholing in the high valleys, wet avalanches on south- and east-facing slopes, and powder on north-facing ones. Though this has not prevented me from regaining some of my winter-blighted fitness, it has thwarted some of the more ambitious goals I had for my brief Teton climbing season.

What about the rest of the summer? After a successful and rewarding summer in the Alps last year, I was looking to put together another extended dirtbag international trip. I am running out of new ranges to explore in car-accessible western North America, so I must travel farther afield to see completely new terrain. This summer, that terrain will be the Cordillera of Peru, where I will spend about 8 weeks climbing and trekking. The mountains are higher, wilder, and less suited to my abilities than the Alps, and the logistics will be more primitive and trying, but it should be an interesting experience nonetheless. Stay tuned — the adventure starts in about a week!


PS — As usual, I am making this trip with no corporate or institutional sponsorship. What support I have comes from friends: Ted, who is the master of frequent flyer points (and owns a house near an airport where I can stash my car); and Scott, who wears roughly my size and has generously donated boots, skis, and other miscellaneous gear. I have not and will not run ads, post affiliate links, publish “sponsored content,” or ask for donations on this site. If you support what I do and enjoy reading about it, please consider buying my new book.