Category Archives: California

Swimming in the P-trap

I do it for the views


“Peak-ness” is like pornography: as Potter Stewart said, you know it when you see it. The Matterhorn and Rainier are clearly peaks; so are North Maroon and Mount Morrison, rising above Maroon and Convict Lakes. Impressive though it is, Castleton Tower is not. Shiprock? It’s hard to say. While a peak is intuitively a notable highpoint, trying to quantify that intuition is not easy. Elevation alone is clearly not enough: the town of Leadville lies above most of Washington State, but the North Cascades are far more peak-like than the talus mounds of the Sawatch. Other measures include isolation (distance to the nearest higher thing), prominence (rise above the connection to that thing), and combinations of those two. Then there are even more elaborate ones like Reduced Spire Measure, the integral of angle from the summit to all surrounding points.

Watching the definition of a seemingly-simple concept spiral into endless complexity is a delight to philosophers, but seems overdone for something trivial like peak-bagging. When it comes to lesser peaks in unfamiliar areas, I find prominence sufficient: it favors large solitary mountains and range highpoints. Unfortunately it has the weakness of favoring volcanoes and small ranges, i.e. Oregon and Nevada, so chasing prominence leads to what one could call the “P-trap.”

After Shastina, I found myself faced with an extended period of bad weather in the northwest, and therefore took a dive into the P-trap of northern California and southern Oregon. This area at least has trees, so it’s not as grim as Nevada, and many prominent peaks have roads leading to antennas and/or fire lookouts on their summits, making them attractive bike-and-hikes. Here are some of the summits I scaled in this brief effort to improve my “P-index.”

Black Butte

Black Butte is Shasta’s mini-me, a basalt cone next to the highway to its west. It is a nightmare of loose volcanic talus, but fortunately it had a lookout, and therefore a trail. Only the concrete foundation remains of the former, and the latter is slowly being reclaimed by the rubble, but it is still an improvement over the peak’s original state, making it a good short objective. As I ascended, I watched Shasta being swallowed by clouds, grateful that I had skied (most of) it the day before. It was cold and windy on top, so I did not stay long before hobbling and jogging back to the car.

Goosenest

Goosenest is another old volcano north of Shasta on the way to Klamath Falls. It would ordinarily be a good bike-n-hike from the pavement, but it was afternoon and raining off and on by the time I reached it, and I did not want to get my bike dirty and did not have enough daylight. I was worried about the dirt forest roads, but they were well-packed and not yet saturated, so my sorry vehicle had no trouble reaching an intersection a few miles from the summit. From there, I took the direct route, hike-jogging a road to an old quarry on the south side, then following a trail from there to the summit. The upper trail had some big snowdrifts, and it was snowing with no visibility on the summit, but it was worth just as many peak points. I jogged the descent, then continued to Klamath Falls.

Stukel

Lying well on the rain shadow side of Oregon, Stukel is another classic Oregon ride to radio towers. To make it a bit more challenging, I started from town, taking the canal bike path to a rail trail heading east of the city. The rail trail continues remarkably far out of town, but I turned south on some farm roads, then located the gravel road to the summit. This was challengingly steep at first, and I barely managed to keep my rear wheel from spinning out while toiling up in my lowest gear. Fortunately the grade eased beyond the first couple switchbacks, and I had an easier time the rest of the way to the summit. I once again had a magnificent view of clouds where Shasta and McLoughlin should have been, with clearer skies to the south and east.

Hogback

Hogback is Klamath Falls’ Atalaya, a “workout peak” with 1500-2000 feet of elevation gain and many routes leading to its summit. It was a good target for a morning of miserable weather. After looking around for awhile behind a closed and gated church, I took the wrong path for a bit before getting on the direct route to the summit, an unofficial trail that is relentlessly steep at first. I crossed the road from the other side, tagged the lookout, then quickly retreated in a storm of ice pellets. If I lived in Klamath, I would no doubt put in dozens of laps and loops on this peak.

Walker

Walker is another lookout and comms tower, east of the highway between Klamath and Bend. It would normally be a moderate ride, but snow turned the last couple miles into a hike. I biked from the highway, taking a well-maintained main road to the turnoff, then following the lookout road until the snow became too continuous to make pushing the bike worthwhile. This road had some interesting rubber water bars, which were several inches high, but just flexible enough to make it almost unnecessary to bunny-hop them. I checked out the lookout and its outbuildings, examined the weather stalled on the Cascade crest to the west, then returned to my bike for an unpleasant, hand-freezing descent.

Odell

Odell Butte is a near-perfect cone near Crescent Lake. I had been hoping to ride the road to the Oregon standard lookout and antennas, but the storm arrived in earnest the night before, so I ran it from the car, about 6 miles each way. The snow began as a dusting, which gradually turned into moderate postholing, with a large old drift blocking vehicles at the “road closed to tourists” sign just below the top. I got a brief view of Crescent Lake on the way down, but was mostly in the clouds, with only the nearby rime-covered trees for distraction. I turned up the speed a bit on the final, more runnable road, and enjoyed some time at an actual running pace; it had been too long.

Shastina

Shasta from Shastina


Mount Shasta is one of the big-daddy ski mountains of the Pacific Rim, offering over 7,000 feet of relief in peak season. I had already climbed it three times, twice via Avalanche Gulch and once via Clear Creek, but had never skied it. Though this has been an exceptionally dry year, the mountain still had coverage almost to Bunny Flat, with good turns to be had from the top of the Red Banks to below the Sierra Club hut. With hurricane winds forecast both before and after, I saw a one-day window to ski the rapidly-melting south side and took it. My plan was to climb Shastina, a subpeak I had yet to visit, then continue to Shasta and down Avalanche Gulch, a logical link-up that probably has a name.

Shasta was also one of the Clatsop tribe’s three directional peaks, which they named named Wy’East (Hood), Wy’North (Rainier), and Wy’South (Shasta). Since the ocean was always to their west, they felt no need to assign that direction a summit. To show their prowess, Clatsop warriors would set off in late Spring, toboggans on their backs, to sled the three great peaks before the Solstice. Those who returned brought a piece of sacred sulfur from each summit, and tales of death-defying speed on their descents, a precursor to the current “Fastest Known Time” craze. As a final test, to honor the West, they would wind-sail the mouth of the Columbia, much as bearded hipsters do today.

The extremes of car-camping

I camped off one of the many side-roads along the Everett Memorial Highway, then drove up to the trailhead at dawn. The lot was already mostly filled with a mixture of the cars of those camping at Helen Lake and various car-sleepers ranging from a guy in a Honda Fit to full-on hashtag-vanlife. I found a spot next to a truck with a couple getting ready to head up. They asked me where I was headed and, when I mentioned Shastina, offered that it looked pretty thin. “I’m more of a peak-bagger than a skier,” I replied before returning to my preparations.

Entry to Hidden Valley

Skis and boots on my pack, I set off up the well-beaten path, hiking the couple of miles to the stone hut at a sorry pace. I stopped to switch to skis there, then skinned through the woods and up the base of Casaval Ridge, finding a mix of ski- and boot-tracks. I traversed up and around, aiming for a flat spot on the ridge near Hidden Valley. Coverage was thin, forcing me to wander a bit to dodge brush and rocks, but I managed to keep the skis on to the small shoulder I had spotted. There I made one of my slow, awkward transitions, then coasted down into the bowl before putting skins back on to resume the climb.

Slogging Shastina

Shastina looked just as bare as from the trailhead, with a couple of strips of snow not quite connecting the south gullies to the summit crater, but there was continuous snow up Cascade Gully to the Shasta-Shastina saddle. The lower part was mostly a pleasant angle for skinning, with only one lip requiring some precarious switchbacks. As the upper gully steepened and went into the shade, it became too hard and steep to comfortable skin, so I put my skis on my back again and headed up one of the south-side snow-strips, weaving a bit to find bootable snow. The combination of altitude, weight, and age made me painfully slow on the climb, frequently stopping to pant and “admire the view.”

Southwest from Shastina

Crossing a bit of loose rubble near the top, I finally saw the layout of the summit. Fortunately I had a map and GPS, because there are several near-equally high points spaced widely apart, separated by a mess of partial craters full of snow and rubble. I debated leaving my skis at the rim, then foolishly decided to carry them to the top, hoping to find a continuous skiable line on the east, Shasta-facing side. I found a hint of a summer trail in the rubble near the top, following it to the ridge before dropping my pack to scramble to the highest bump. To the south and west I could see snowy Mount Eddy and the Trinity Alps, while to the east, Mount Shasta looked depressingly bare.

Upper Whitney Glacier

I picked my way down some scree, then skied a short distance before running into more rocks and giving up, hobbling down to the saddle, then booting up the ridge right of the Whitney Glacier. The Cascades Skiing website I had been using suggested ascending the Whitney Glacier, but it was last updated fifteen years ago, and I suspected the glacier would be too dry and broken up to be useful. Instead, I booted up a broad snowfield, aiming for the ridge to its right, which joins Casaval near the base of Misery Hill.

End of ridge

This turned out to be a moderately bad idea, as the ridge was frequently loose, sometimes narrow, vertical on the left, and often steep and icy on the right. I tried to find the best route I could in ski boots with skis on my back, sometimes scrambling class 3 rock on the crest, sometimes traversing slopes to the right, but it was slow, cautious, tiring work. I told myself that, having not done any real mountaineering since last Fall, this was good and necessary practice.

Ice chickenheads

I finally reached the junction with Casaval and headed for Misery Hill, intending to skin up to the summit crater, tag Shasta, and have a nice, long ski. I hiked down to a shallow saddle, then noticed that the south and west sides of the Hill were a mixture of bare talus and what a guy in the parking lot referred to later as “ice chickenheads” — finger- to hand-sized blobs of clear ice formed when moisture is blown across textured snow by vicious wind. It looked somewhere between unpleasant and unskiable. I stopped near where a splitboarder had discarded his gear, and watched a few skiers skinning back up toward the top of Casaval Ridge. I thought for awhile, looked toward Shasta, then decided I had had enough for the day, and all the good skiing was below me.

Left of Heart chutes

I slid back to the saddle, booted up a short rise, then clicked in again and dropped into one of a few steep chutes northwest of the summer route in an area called “Left of Heart.” The initial drop looked steep, but the chute was wide enough that I was mostly able to link turns, and the snow was enjoyably firm. It gradually turned to more of a Slurpee lower down in Avalanche Gulch, but it was highly consolidated and momentum was my friend. I linked leisurely turns down the bowl past the tent city at Helen Lake, then followed a gully as I began searching for the route that would get me closest to the car. Things gradually deteriorated, but with only a couple of minor scrapes and short hikes, I reached the trail about a quarter mile from the parking lot.

The lot was a mixture of happy skiers and tourist hikers. I hung my stuff to dry, made some food, then chatted for a bit with the members of the Honda Element Club parked across the way. I hung out as the crowd thinned, waiting for it to cool down in the valley, then retreated to another forest road for a quiet night. The weather was some form of bad for much of the next week in every place I checked within convenient driving distance, leaving me scrambling for options. I was slightly disappointed in myself for not summiting Shasta, but I had skied the best part on a near-perfect Spring day, and felt no need to return for the final 1000 feet.

Lassen

Looking down ski line


Lassen Peak is the southernmost Cascades volcano, and a fairly active one, having erupted as recently as 1921 and still featuring sulphur vents and boiling mudpits on its flanks. It took me a couple tries to summit, thanks to the whole mountain being closed for trailwork, but when dry it is an easy trail hike from the road. However I had yet to ski it, and with the road still gated to cars and the High Sierra transitioning to summer, now seemed like a good time. Fortunately I had the necessary gear to make it enjoyable — a bike and skis — and David made do with a bike and splitboard. I am old enough to consider snowboarding contrived and impractical, so splitboarding a mountain seems like rock climbing in roller skates: it can be done, but why?

In any case, the parking lot was much busier than it had been during the week, though still more than half empty, and there were several other people with bikes and skis. It was not a long day, and the snow had to soften, so we were in no hurry to get started. We passed one young woman on an old beater bike, stopped to adjust her skis, and I noted how they were attached. They were held on opposite sides of the seatpost, with one ski strap suspending them from the saddle rails, a second holding an end to the top tube, and an optional bungee cord securing them to the rack. I had seen pictures of people carrying skis this way, so it was good to finally learn how it was done.

Skinning past Helen Peak

Continuing up the road, we found several other bikes at the end of the plowed section ahead of us. We switched to ski mode, then started skinning toward the peak, taking a line between Helen Lake and the road. There was no single established skin track, so I chose what seemed like a reasonable line, passing near what I thought was the summer trailhead. The trail follows the south ridge, largely wind-blasted and currently windy, so I continued around to the more sheltered southeast face, figuring this would be both more sheltered and softer.

Trail ridge

While it was more sheltered than the ridge, the snow was still surprisingly hard. I managed to keep side-hilling into the bowl, but David, on his ridiculous splitboard, was having more trouble. First, because the halves of a splitboard are shorter than skis, he had less surface area to grip the snow. Second, because he had comfortable, squishy snowboard boots, he lacked ankle support to edge into the hill. I tried to choose an easier line for his sake for awhile, but then gave up and followed some other skiers ahead and above in the bowl. I figured he could fend for himself, and I would take an extra lap to check in on his progress.

The skinning became a bit desperate as the bowl’s angle increased. The skiers ahead of me mostly had ski crampons or actual crampons, but I had brought neither. When the skinning became a bit too dicey, I traversed over to the rocks on the right, strapped my skis to my pack, and booted up a mix of volcanic rubble and softer snow on its margin. Farther up, the lensing effect of the chute had softened the center snow, so I followed that, passing a couple people near the top.

Shasta in the distance

I had hoped to get out of the upslope wind on the summit plateau, but was immediately hit with a contradictory wind from the west. Still, it was sunny and I had a down jacket, so I was comfortable enough to enjoy the view for awhile. The various summit knobs were, predictably after the previous day’s storm, covered in rime feathers, while Shasta looked invitingly white far to the north. The two other guys on the summit worked at least seasonally for nearby Plumas National Forest, and we talked a bit about the recovery from the Dixie Fire.

Almost crowded…

As another couple of skiers arrived, I decided to down to check on David. The top of the mountain was still a bit crusty, but the skiing soon improved in the bowl. I did not see him on the snow, so I put my skins back on at the base of the steeper part and headed back. Partway up, I switched to booting and found it much more efficient than zig-zagging on skis, passing the young woman we had met on her bike just at the top. I found David had arrived several minutes earlier, having scrambled up the rock rib right of the bowl, and already tagged the summit.

We hung out some more, then headed down in more favorable skiing conditions. It turns out that splitboards are also not great at going downhill, at least if one has to side-hill, so while I took a fun, straight line in the best snow, David had to begin traversing high on spiky crust. We had a bit of trouble dodging bare patches at the base of the south ridge, but mostly had an easy glide back to the bikes. There were now ten or so bikes locked to trees or leaned against snowbanks, almost a “crowd.” If only more of our National Parks were open to cars for less of the year…

Lake Almanor

About as close as I get to stunt riding

[This low-photo entry brought to you by Error 3145 and Apple’s garbage software quality. Photos will probably randomly start working again tomorrow or next week. — ed.]

Lake Almanor is one of the numerous large lakes in this part of California. Though it has an earthen dam at its southern end, it seems larger than can be explained by this modest barrier, so I suspect it was once a smaller, natural version of its current self. Fittingly for California, I first became aware of Almanor thanks to a natural disaster, the Dixie Fire, which torched almost a million acres to its south and west to become one of the two largest fires in the state’s history. (The other, the August Complex, occurred the year before.) I had noted its cycling potential, but planned to skip it in favor of more interesting plans.

However nature had other ideas. We woke in the Lassen parking lot to lowering clouds, so after breakfast we waited around to see whether things would improve. They did not, and a mild but steady drizzle began. I have skied in the rain once before and, it being a Saturday, a handful of hardy (in the Dave Barry sense) others were heading for Brokeoff and Lassen despite the weather, but David and I both had bikes, cars, and common sense, so after hanging out in the car for awhile, we drove down to Almanor to ride around the lake.

Parking at the intersection of Highways 36 and 89, we immediately left the current roads to follow old 89, a pleasant mix of dirt and decaying pavement paralleling the current road. Soon after it faded under the new 89, we found another dirt forest road paralleling the pavement, which we followed to the paved access road to Butt Valley Reservoir (what’s with these names?). This road climbed gradually through unburnt woods, then made a steep, winding descent to the lake.

Few living things


The road soon turned to dirt, and we were grateful that it was freshly-graded and we were there in the spring. This part of the state is largely volcanic, so the soil turns to a deep powder that completely coats every surface of anything that passes. We wound around Butt Lake, then wound around to the next valley, riding through rolling terrain as we entered the Dixie Fire zone. This was one of the largest fires in California history, and almost a year later, the devastation was running its course but slowly. Other than a few ferns, the forest seemed free of flora and fauna alike. The burned trees had not begun falling, and there had not been any large mudslides, but it is only a matter of time before both happen.

Down into the canyon


Even in its current state it was magnificent riding, with deep valleys opening up to views of distant snow-covered peaks to the west. With one final 600-foot descent, we reached our lowpoint at Seneca, a tiny former enclave of vacation homes and/or secessionists. Nothing was left now save stone chimneys, twisted metal propane tanks, and a dog barking incessantly somewhere off in the woods. We crossed the bridge, then climbed a steady 1400 feet back to Lake Almanor at its southern end, reaching pavement a short distance before the highway, which we crossed to continue along the quiet east-side road.

Stopping at a gas station so David could refuel on junk food, I got a chance to observe the locals for a bit. Lake Almanor may have been a prime vacation spot in the 1950s, and a logging hub in the 1850s, but its glory seems at an ebb, and it is the off-season anyways. A couple guys stopped by for soda and barbecue and said “hi” in a friendly way, and another two pulled up in an old lifted pickup, depositing a full six-pack of empty Smirnoff Ice bottles in the trash. The place felt back-woods, but not uncomfortable.

Distant snow


We continued to follow the lake shore counterclockwise, turning onto a lesser paved road, passing a ridiculous rich-person enclave with a Tudor-style stone guardhouse, then turned off on an abandoned railroad grade to follow the shore more closely back to the causeway east of Chester. This section was quiet, but the surface was unpleasant sharp gravel left over from the track bed. Thanks to Strava, David found another detour near town, taking us around the south side and ending in a mix of burnt woods, stagnant water, and ATV trails. With a final zig-zag to find a bridge crossing an input to Lake Almanor, we returned to the cars for a pleasant, leisurely 45-mile ride.

Lassen’s summit remained hidden in clouds, but David took off to tag Brokeoff, a county highpoint, while I went into town to resupply. The Forest Service office had an unguarded garden hose, where I was able to refill my water and wash my bike. An armed and armored ranger stopped by, but he did not object to my minor misuse of government property. I reached the library as it closed, but the librarian told me I was welcome to use the WiFi (unlike in Susanville, where it was closed because Someone did Something Bad). The old building even had some cool folding desks on its porch, where I sat to catch up with the world before returning to Lassen to give the main peak another shot.

Diamond, Helen, Bumpass, Brokeoff

Maximum gear, not maximum effort


After a period of indecision, I belatedly set out for a bit of “adventure,” or at least something focused more on the activity itself than on gaining fitness. Lassen Park was in that happy transitional state of plowed but gated roads, so I headed there first, arriving late to a surprisingly-empty parking lot. Not having the energy to pack or plan the night before, or the will to deal with a cold start, I finally started sometime after 8:00.

Lassen from visitor center

This was my first experiment cycling with skis on my back, but it was little worse than carrying a heavy pack, except that the tails caught occasionally mounting and dismounting. I slowly spun past the sulfurous hot springs, then continued to the northeast side of Diamond Peak, my first goal, where I saw some tracks leading up and down the short 500-foot slope to its summit ridge. I followed a skin track some of the time, made my own for the rest, and reached the base of the summit pinnacle without difficulty. I did feel slow, however: while I know from my running and cycling times that I am reasonably fit, I still found myself stopping to gasp for breath skinning uphill at a plodding pace. This is not unexpected, but it is always disappointing to be reminded that I am far from being able to race on skis.

Diamond summit block

Diamond’s summit is an undulating choss-ridge with highpoints on either end. I changed into running shoes, then went to the middle first, where I had cell service, and downloaded Bob’s and others’ trip reports to see which was the highest (an indication of my level of preparedness). Thankfully people seem to agree that the north pinnacle is the highest, because the south one is a large balanced rock that appears to overhang on all sides. I made the easy scramble in my worn-out shoes, then returned to my skis for a five-minute glide to the road. As usual, I had spent more time getting into and out of ski boots than actually sliding downhill.

Taking the day off

Back on the bike, I continued up the road to where the plows had given up near Helen Lake, then leaned my bike against the snowbank and locked it. I suppose I was blocking further plowing, but it was already close to 11:00 and the plows were still parked, so I assumed they had the day off. There had been a couple in a van camped at the visitor center, and I found their bikes a short distance onward, stashed behind some trees. They were of course headed for Lassen, but I was interested in two nearby minor summits, Helen and Bumpass.

Lassen from Helen

I had seen “Bumpass Hell” on maps during previous visits to Lassen, but had not bothered to explore. The “Hell” part is due to a volcanic feature, in this case some boiling mud-pools, in keeping with the geographic naming convention that has given us the Devil’s Tower, Postpile, and Corral. The “Bumpass” part remains an amusing mystery, perhaps inspired by a rough road through the park. I find it amusing, though, and see a missed opportunity in not naming nearby Bumpass and Brokeoff Mountains “Bump-ass Hill” and “Broke-ass Hill.”

Lake Almanor

In any case, I started up Helen first, finding it an easy skin from the lake. From the summit, I had a clear view of Lassen’s south side, including the largely-dry trail and more skiable southeast and southwest slopes. I saw the couple nearing the summit plateau, specks on skis sticking to the snow. I found some obnoxious brush and cliffs on the direct line to Bumpass, forcing me down and east, then back west to ascent its west ridge to the peak. I took a similarly suboptimal line back to the road, side-hilling across a couple of drainages before finally booting up to the Bumpass Hell parking lot.

Brokeoff summit and Shasta

One clunky road-walk later I was back at my bike, talking to the couple as we all put away our ski gear and prepared to ride. They had been traveling seasonally for a few years, though oddly enough in the winter, and were headed up the Cascades to ski various volcanoes. They were of a different dirtbag economic stratum than Yours Truly, but we got along well enough. Back at the car, I had a late lunch, then decided to tag nearby Brokeoff Mountain to fill the rest of the afternoon. The sun doesn’t set until 8:00, so while the skiing would not be great, I had a lot of time to kill.

Brokeoff summit and Shasta

I entered the woods near the entrance station, then wandered up the broad drainage toward its headwall, where all routes converge on the summer trail. Others had apparently done the same, and I found bits of up- and down-tracks throughout. I followed an intermittent and bad skin-track up the headwall, then meandered up the ridge, dodging rocks and brush. Once I finally broke out on the broad south face, it was an easy skin and hike to the summit, the east-most of three peaks. Brokeoff offers excellent views of Lassen and Shasta, the latter’s isolation and snowpack making particularly impressive.

I found a few good turns on Brokeoff’s south face, but the snow was wet and sticky, and all too soon I had to cut left to cross the ridge back to my drainage. From there it was mostly side-hilling, skating, and careful dodging between trees back to the road, then a short walk to the parking lot. Other than the few turns on Diamond, there was very little real skiing in my day, but my purpose was to tag minor peaks, not big lines, so that was fine. Day complete, I made myself a dinner of odds and ends, then napped, read, and prepared my pack for what I thought would be another day of bike ‘n’ ski.

What to do around Susanville

Hold my beer…


I have passed through Susanville a number of times commuting between the Sierra and points north, and my impression has been: (1) at least it has a Walmart, and (2) keep going for cheaper gas. For reasons too mundane and pathetic to detail, I found myself spending a few days nearby recently. It remains a desert redneck hub, too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and fertile ground for “F*ck B*den — not my president” signs to grow. But it also has a wealth of good cycling in the shoulder season, from paved backroads, to dirt forest roads, to a couple of long rail trails. I don’t think I could live here, but like many parts of drive-through country, it has redeeming features if you take the time to look.

Bizz Johnson trail

Bizz Johnson trail

The Bizz Johnson trail is a 25-mile rail trail following the Susan River west from Susanville, with two short tunnels and many bridges. Parts were destroyed by recent fires and floods, but the first 7.5 miles are undamaged, and the rest is being repaired. I was in town too early for the western parts, which are still a mixture of snow and mud, but was able to follow parallel forest roads to the end at Mason Station, then loop back on Highway 36. Once the country to the west melts out, there are apparently many other roads and trails that can be combined with the Bizz Johnson to make long loops. But as in Oregon, there is a strong rain shadow despite a lack of notable mountains, so peaks above 7000 feet east of town were dry even as forest to the west had patchy snow at 5500 feet.

Fredonyer Peak

Fredonyer summit

There are no fewer than four mountains named Fredonyer in the area, as well as some other features. All are named for Atlas Fredonyer, an early settler with an unsettling biography. This is the highest one, with a lookout and antenna nest on top, accessed by a rough dirt road off Highway 139 between Susanville and Eagle Lake. The road is hard to spot, an unsigned turn on the long descent to the lake. Another, more obvious road apparently also leads to the peak, but crosses aggressive private property near the bottom. Riding the peak from camp north of town, it came out to just under fifty miles round-trip. Though the day was fairly pleasant lower down, the summit was uncomfortably windy, leaving me with cold, stiff hands for the rough descent and much of the paved ride back south.

Eagle Lake

No need to share this time of year

For some reason, this region features many large lakes. The most famous and arguably scenic is Tahoe, but others include Pyramid, Honey, Alkai, Goose, and Eagle. From Susanville, there is a 60-mile paved loop around Eagle Lake via Highway 139 to its east and Eagle Lake Road (A1) to its west. Even the highway part of this loop is not too busy, and the Eagle Lake Road is almost deserted before the campground along the lake are open for the summer. This makes for a wonderful, quiet, rolling long ride, only slightly spoiled by the pavement cracks on A1, causing vicious jolts every few seconds for what seems like hours.

Shaffer Mountain

Susanville from Shaffer

This is another peak with an antenna nest, and therefore a road to the top, climbing about 2000 feet in seven miles at a steady grade. The upper parts can be frustratingly rock and loose, but not nearly as bad as the Fredonyer road. This would be a long ride from town, but it was a good short objective from the highway, suitable for a day with miles to travel and errands to run. Not only is it an efficient workout, but Shaffer has 2000 feet of prominence, making it worth multiple Peakbagger Points.

Waucoba, Squaw

Waucoba from Squaw


After repeating some terrain in the Inyos near Lone Pine, I was headed north when I remembered Waucoba Mountain, a prominent mound near Big Pine at the northern end of that range. Its approaches normally require quite a bit of dirt road driving, but I had my bike with me, so after some quick research, I turned southeast on 168 and the initially paved Death Valley road, then pulled off to camp at the junction with the Saline Valley Road’s northern end. There I had no cell service, passing a quiet night before watching the full moon set and the sun rise on the Sierra.

Trailhead

The road into Saline is graded smooth enough for a passenger car, but too washboarded for any car you care about. This is almost as miserable on a bike, but at least you can weave back and forth or hug the shoulder to find the smoothest lines. My mapping program directed me up a rougher, steeper road in a wash to shortcut a bend, but I made it to the “trailhead” without incident, locking my bike to the wilderness sign before taking off up the fading roadbed.

Typical terrain on climb

Though this seems to be a standard route on a DPS peak, and I saw a few cairns, there is no trail, but fortunately the terrain is mostly easy travel, soft dirt dotted with piƱons, prickly pears, and granite boulders. Dodging these, I made my way generally uphill and left toward an indistinct east ridge, occasionally checking that I was roughly following the track I had downloaded. Where the ridge steepened and became more defined, I put out more effort, enjoying the workout as I climbed a mixture of open slopes and game trails. There was some snow lingering on north and east slopes, but it was still firm in the morning, and mostly avoidable.

Northern Sierra pano

There are two similarly-high boulder-piles on the summit plateau, with one having a large cairn and ammo box containing the register. I leafed through to find a few familiar names as I admired the Palisades to the west; the view east to Death Valley was hazy and unremarkable. I checked the time, then decided to follow my track and add on neighboring Squaw Peak, shorter but better-looking as befit its name.

Climb up Squaw

I ate the last of my food as I hike-jogged down easy terrain to the saddle, then ground out a hot, steep, loose, brushy climb up Squaw’s ridge. There were fewer entries in its register, and therefore a higher proportion of familiar names. I am no desert rat myself, but have been playing the peak-bagging game long enough to recognize them. I briefly admired the similar views then, thinking of the rising heat and my uphill ride to the car, followed the track down Squaw’s southeast side toward the trailhead. This was steep and loose, with brush, short cliffs, and miserable talus getting in the way at times, but still fast, with stretches of boot-skiable dirt and scree.

Back at the bike, I drank some water, then set off for a jostling ride home. I followed the main road around its bend, passing one of those huge overlanding vehicles built from what looks like a surplus military vehicle. I saw a few more vehicles on the climb out, mostly Tacomas, likely headed to and from the Saline Valley hot springs, and finally reached my car around 2:00. I had just enough time to wash the disgusting dirt and sand from my feet, put my bike back on the car, and grab some snacks before driving back to Big Pine and cell service to catch up with the world, glad to have finally checked this minor landmark off my list.

Lonesome Miner Trail (20h20)

Bighorn cabin


The Lonesome Miner Trail (LMT) is a route through the Inyo Mountains near Lone Pine, traveling between the range’s crest and eastern base. The Inyos are a desert range made mostly of garbage rock, and the route does not go over or even particularly near any peaks, so it is a strange place to find Yours Truly. However, the Inyos have their own grandeur, rising almost 10,000 feet from the Saline Valley on one side and over 6,000 from the Owens on the other. Their eastern side is also both hospitable and mind-bendingly remote: while most canyons have year-round springs, these are mostly at elevations between five and six thousand feet, separated from the inhospitable and uninhabited desert valley below by a vertical mile of brushy slot canyons and loose ridges. The springs are no easier to reach from the barely-inhabited Owens Valley to the west, from which one must climb a vertical mile to the crest before descending several thousand feet. Nevertheless, a brief mining boom occurred around these water sources around 1900, and the LMT links some of the water sources and mines via their old roads and pack trails.

A lonesome miner must eat

Ever since first hearing of it in 2018, and backpacking it around that winter’s solstice, I had a vague idea that the LMT might be doable in a single day. With trails that span elevations ranging from 4000 to 9500 feet and are difficult to follow at night, timing is difficult for a fast trip. The best time might be in October or November, between when daytime temperatures are bearable and when the first significant snow coats north slopes. However it can also be doable in March or April with some tolerance for snow and/or heat. The official route crosses the range from Hunter Canyon on the Saline to Pat Keyes Pass on the Owens side. However this involves a hundred-mile car shuttle on annoying dirt roads, so I prefer to come in from Long John Canyon on the Owens side, requiring slightly more climbing but only a ten-mile shuttle.

Dawn from above Long John

I had not planned to attempt the LMT on this trip, but when my circumstances thrust it upon me I shoved about 5500 calories into a daypack, drove as far as I dared up Long John Canyon road, and set my alarm for 2:30 AM. I was not sure I had the fitness or desire to do the whole thing, but an early exit via Forgotten Pass would leave me only a few miles from the starting trailhead. I took longer than usual preparing in the morning, then started out around 3:20, hiking and occasionally jogging the road as it decayed into the wash. I been this way twice in the past, so although the trail is often faint to nonexistent, I had little trouble following the general route to the crest, where I saw dawn on the barely-drivable road north from Cerro Gordo. I sent a few final text messages, then began jogging down the other side, committing myself to at least a very long day.

Postholing begins

Conditions soon reminded me of my previous December trip, with snow filling in the switchbacks on some of the east-facing switchbacks. The road was easy to follow, but the snow was punchy and deep enough to force me onto its edges, making running difficult. Snow-line seemed to be somewhere between six and seven thousand feet on the wooded north slopes, foreboding a frustrating day. The south-facing climb back to the Hunter saddle was dry, however, and I climbed comfortably in a t-shirt as the sun finally hit me.

Lower Hunter Canyon

The descent into Hunter was again snowy, but the trail was easy to follow, as was the dry trail along the wash’s bottom. I paused at the camp spot before Bighorn Spring, where we had slept on my 2018 backpack, and noted that only one party had signed the register since then. Continuing past the spring and nearby rusting machinery, I climbed up the bank to the left, admiring the view down-canyon from above a fork, then plugged in my poor cold phone to charge before contouring into the north tributary in search of the trail up to Bighorn Mine.

Bighorn cabin and Saline

I wasted some time finding the route, as the original trail followed the wash and has therefore been consumed by rubble and brush. After a bit of exploration, I proceeded left and spotted some cairns along the right bank. The line of cairns followed the edge of a collapsing rubble cliff, which made me doubt that this was the original route, before following old rockwork as it switchbacked up the right side of the valley. I stopped to take some photos of old tools and a broken bowl at the mine, then continued to the Bighorn Cabin. Perched on a narrow spur ridge near 7000 feet, the cabin is close to the ore vein, and has an incredible view of the Saline Valley below. However living there must have been arduous, requiring frequent trips to the spring 1500 feet below for water. The cabin is in good shape and well-equipped with tools, cots, and a stove, but I doubt any of the handful of people who now visit each year stay the night. I took some photos of the cabin and commemorative plaque, then kept moving.

Frenchy’s from above

The route is again somewhat unclear here, traversing along a rusty pipe and continuing up-canyon for awhile before switchbacking past some more prospects to the ridge above 8000 feet. From this crossing, a difficult trail descends 2500 feet to Frenchy’s Cabin in Beveridge Canyon. This section is faint, and has been obliterated partway down in a talus field, but cairns and careful attention make it possible to follow by daylight, even in snow. Unfortunately said snow was piled calf- to knee-deep on parts of the trail, with a crust only beginning to soften as the morning warmed, turning potential running terrain into laborious hiking. My friend Kim had proposed doing the route in the other direction for precisely this reason — you might as well be going uphill if you have to walk — but plowing uphill would have been much more tiring.

Thanks, Kim!

I reached Frenchy’s before noon, around eight hours into the day, and paused to refill my water and pillage the two sandwiches Kim had left in the cooler for passers-by. This was the only point on the route at which I could bail, climbing about 3000 feet to Forgotten Pass and returning to the Owens Valley near my car. Pleased with my progress, and believing myself almost halfway through the LMT, I decided to continue to the end, expecting to reach the top of Pat Keyes Pass around dark. This would allow me to do the last climbing, and most of the tricky route-finding, before headlamp time.

Beveridge Ridge cabin

Passing the “town” of Beveridge, I climbed past the trail east to the Saline Valley, ascending mostly easy-to-follow switchbacks along the spur ridge to Beveridge Canyon. The thermometer at Frenchy’s had read 65 degrees, and it was hot on the south-facing slope, but I was still moving well enough. Stopping at the Beveridge Ridge Cabin, I signed the register and took a few photos. I also took a packet of beef ramen, licking the noodles, sprinkling the flavor packet on top, and shoving them into my mouth as I turned the corner to posthole through more snow on the way to the bulldozer and other remains of the Keynot Mine. With no obvious road leading to this spot around 8000 feet, I am not sure how the equipment reached this remote spot. Perhaps it was helicoptered in to the dirt helipad at the cabin, then driven around the corner.

Keynot machinery

On my previous trip, we had made the mistake of continuing along the mine to its other end, following more evidence of mining until the level road disappeared into the hillside, then sidehilling miserably for several hours across loose terrain to reach the next ridge. This time, I followed a line of cairns and a faint trail back and uphill from just before the dozer, eventually finding bits and pieces of old trail leading to a collapsed cabin. I suspect that the LMT route follows a path that predates the mechanized Keynot Mine, connecting Beveridge to a more primitive prospect and the hermitage of McElvoy Canyon. This trail frustratingly gains and loses elevation, but is preferable to and far faster than cross-country travel across the steep hillside.

Bleeding bighorn

After the high traverse, the trail into McElvoy Canyon is one of the faintest and most confusing parts of the route. After descending along a hardpack dirt ridge, where the faint trailbed has almost completely disappeared, it weaves around complex crags on the canyon’s steep south side. In several places, it crosses unstable talus-fields that have obliterated whatever trail once existed. Looking for sporadic cairns and rockwork on either side of these slopes, I was able to follow its general path, though not its every detail, on the long descent, finally losing it in game trails and brush just above the stream, near where it flows in a cascade over smooth slabs.

McElvoy stonework

Here the correct route follows the southern bank downstream, eventually crossing near some well-built stone cabins. However I had neglected to bring the route description, and in my haste forgot the route. I wasted perhaps half an hour here, first looking upstream, then following a wash with a giant cairn just upstream of the McElvoy Mine buildings. Finally, I remembered that the correct route starts in the ravine immediately behind the cabins. Though it starts out well-built and clear, it soon fades and splits, with branches leading to multiple small digs. I initially went too far left, then contoured right to find the correct route, which climbs a hillside near the eastern edge of the prospecting, then switchbacks up a dirt ridge out of the canyon’s north side.

Here I remembered the trail well, and followed it easily as it returns west along a ridge toward the Inyo Crest, then contours north through woods to reach Pat Keyes Canyon. I had lost too much time crossing McElvoy, and was both frustrated and cold plowing through the slushy snow on this high traverse. Fortunately the trail crosses the canyon relatively high, as it must climb to 9500 feet on the other side to cross back to the Owens Valley via Pat Keyes Pass. Unfortunately the sun had set, I was out of water, and the stream was small and muddy where the trail crosses it. I eventually filled my water bladder with cold hands, then lost the trail on its way downstream toward a supposed ruin.

The trail probably climbs behind this old cabin, but I had run out of light, and decided to simply claw my way directly up to the ridge and find the trail when I reached it. I had counted on reaching this part, which is cold and difficult to follow, with at least some daylight left, and was annoyed and discouraged to once again be doing it in the dark. After a bit of cross-country wandering I picked up the faint Pat Keyes Pass trail, which for once follows the line on the USGS topo. There are enough cairns that the trail would probably be easy to follow at a jog by daylight with fresh legs, but I was dark and fatigue forced me to proceed at a walk.

After traversing around a couple of bumps on the south side of the ridge, the trail crosses to the north for the final half-mile to the pass. Here the misery began, with shin-deep powder and uneven rocks covered by a crust now hard enough to hurt my shins through my pants. I wallowed and cursed in the dark for what felt like an hour to finally reach the saddle, crossing at a point with no trail or markings. I had lost quite a bit of time here wandering last time, so failing to at least start on the trail boded ill. It was almost 9:00 PM — well after dark, but fortunately early enough for Leonie to still be awake. I told her that I would be coming out Pat Keyes, then texted Kim to see if she had a GPX track for the descent.

Unfortunately the cold drained my phone’s aging batter in the few minutes I had it out, knocking out both my communication and navigation. I knew the trail trended left, and did not follow the line on the map, so I headed in that general direction, looking around carefully for cairns above and erosion below the snow. I luckily found the line, following it slowly until my phone revived and I was able to not only see a map, but swap in fresh headlamp batteries. The cairned route, which fades in a couple of places, seems to stay right of the line on the topo, descending closer to a faint drainage before rejoining it where the overall slope steepens. I lost trail a couple of times, and there may be another route closer to the line, but my path was not too onerous.

The trail became easier to follow as I approached the level of the Owens Valley’s lights: Independence, Lone Pine, and some smaller settlements whose names I forget, connected by the cars crawling between on Highway 395. I was pleased to be able to jog the final switchbacks, which are smooth and easy to follow, but maddeningly horizontal compared to most of the trails I had visited. Reaching the trail register, I took a couple of experimental selfies, signed out, and started the two-mile walk to the car. It had taken me about 20h20 from where I had parked on the road up Long John Canyon. With better conditions and no major route-finding errors, I could have done the Lonesome Miner Trail in under 20 hours, and probably under 19; a faster runner somewhat familiar with the route could easily go under 18. I had doubted that I could complete it in a single push, but math works even in the Inyos: 50-55 miles with 15-20 thousand feet of climbing are still doable in a single push.

Santa Barbara tour: to Carpinteria

Morning from camp


In addition to being sheltered from the wind, our campsite was above the cold marine layer, so waking up was pleasant despite our lack of a source of water. We had another forty or so miles to go, but they were downhill or flat and, more importantly, all paved. The final descent followed a stream and valley that collected cold air, but we were far enough south to prevent redwoods from growing, or my hands from freezing.

Declining to take a side trip to the “best hiker-biker beach camp in California” at Refugio, we turned onto Highway 101’s frontage road for the long ride east along the Santa Barbara coast. With smooth pavement and a tailwind most of the way, we made ridiculously good time, reversing several days’ progress west in a single short day. Low on food, we stopped at a convenience store for snacks, and were once again told that we were absolutely not allowed to have any water or use the restrooms. Perhaps this low-grade hostility will fade with the coronavirus, but I suspect it will become the new normal as businesses realize they can save a few pennies on their water bills and minutes of employee time. It is just another small efficiency eked out by the crushing magic of the free market.

Did not slide out

This part of the route involved a mixture of segregated bike paths, striped lanes, urban streets, and a few miles of highway. Finding the best mix would have been difficult for a traveler, but green signs pointed us to the “Pacific Coast Bike Route”, which has been chosen as the least painful way to follow the coast through SoCal’s urban sprawl. While enjoying the easy ride through Santa Barbara, I fantasized that it might extend all the way from the San Francisco Bay to the Mexican border, but it sadly only goes from San Luis Obispo to Malibu. We will need to find another way to plow through greater Los Angeles and reach Baja.

Carpinteria sunset

Even after a lengthy lunch stop with Steve, we made it back to Carpinteria by mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to shower and walk on the beach. We watched the sun set behind the Channel Islands and blinking drilling platforms — some of the few allowed on the California coast — then stumbled back along the beach in the dark to pick up some good but overpriced Thai food and retire to the car. The next morning we packed up slowly, then drove Highway 101 back north, the prevailing wind and tandem on the roof killing our mileage the whole way.

It had been a short tour, with only 160 miles and 16,300′ of climbing. However, we had crossed much rougher terrain than I expected would be possible with the tandem and trailer, and both the touring rig and our relationship emerged without suffering permanent damage. Parts of the route rivaled the roughest terrain I had navigated in South America, and we even negotiated several stretches of single track, which I had never considered. However, the rig’s sweet spot is paved side-roads or good graded dirt, which is where I hope to focus in the future.

Santa Barbara tour: West Camino Cielo

Afternoon on Camino Cielo


It was once again cold and windy overnight at Hidden Potrero, but we woke encouraged by the knowledge that it was all downhill between us and pavement, which we had not seen in four days. (A potrero is a long mesa on the side of a mountain, often used as a pasture. Like the campground’s supposed water source, its pasture was not obvious, making the name accurate.) The sun also rose early at the saddle, making it easier to get a reasonable start around 8:30.

Descending to Upper Oso

The rig was relatively light and maneuverable, with not much water and only one more dinner and breakfast. I had feared that the descent would be rutted and overgrown like previous day’s climb, making it little faster, but the road down to Upper Oso was in much better shape. It is steep, though, and we had to walk the bike down a couple of sections where I did not feel confident in the caliper brakes’ ability to stop it. The road cuts spectacularly down Oso Canyon, with steep chaparral and minor cliffs on both sides and the Santa Ynez mountains ahead.

Pavement at last!

I kissed the pavement at Upper Oso, then we rolled into a campground that much larger and better-maintained than the ones we had passed over the last few days. There was a working spigot, a dumpster, and even flush toilets (!), though only the camp host and a possible day-hiker were around. The miles flew by on the smooth descent to the Santa Ynez, and even the rolling terrain out of Los Padres National Forest along the river went quickly.

Highway 154 is now the main route over the divide at San Marcos Pass, but Steve had suggested we take the old stagecoach road, which is paved and in good condition, but windier and more gently graded. A few minutes after turning up the climb, we were caught by a guy with full panniers. He introduced himself as Eric, and said he was headed down to “San Diego… and if I have the time, Florida.” He was clearly no novice, having first biked this way with his father decades ago. With a bit of digging we learned that, among other things, he had ridden the Baja Divide route, a rugged mountain bike trail down the spine of Baja California. With his restaurant job mostly scuttled by the pandemic, he now had more time than money — a situation perfect for bike touring.

Camino Cielo

We parted at the pass, heading in opposite directions along Camino Cielo, a gratuitous road that snakes from Refugio Pass to Romero Saddle along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, eventually connecting Refugio on the Pacific to the Santa Ynez River at Juncal. On foot or possibly motorbike, one can continue east along the crest, following the Ocean View Trail to another section of Camino Cielo that descends to Ojai. The sections east and west of San Marcos Pass are paved, and a moderately popular scenic route for cyclists and (unfortunately) cars and motorcycles as well.

Having climbed 1300 feet to the pass, we descended slightly along a cold stream where we should have refilled on water, then climbed another thousand feet to the end of pavement at the Winchester Gun Club. We noticed numerous sandstone blobs along the road, and later learned that the area behind Santa Barbara has quite a bit of climbing described by Mountain Project as “not a destination area, but good routes exist.” With hot springs, wilderness, closed-off dirt roads, peaks, and local-friendly crags, it wouldn’t be a bad place to live… if it were affordable. California is a wonderful place, ruined by the number of people aware of that fact.

At the noisily active gun club, we once again left pavement for another ten miles along the crest, to another paved section near Santa Ynez Peak at our tour’s highpoint just over 4000 feet. The pavement had made me complacent and uncharacteristically optimistic, so the initial steep descent, with scattered rocks, eroded channels, and another gate passed by partial disassembly, was a rude shock. With a mixture of careful riding and hike-a-bike, we eventually reached the lowpoint, from which we had another 1600 feet to climb, all on similarly-degraded dirt.

Lake Cachuma

Between the wind, the slow terrain, and an increasingly-worrying shortage of food and water, this was a rough slog for an afternoon so late in the tour. We mostly had the road to ourselves, suffering together toward the towers that marked its end, appearing and disappearing with the undulating ridge. While I do not handle brush and miserable washouts well, I am comfortable with long miles and elevation because, with a predictable rate of progress, I can calculate how much longer they will last. I was therefore able to settle into the grind and enjoy the inverse views: to the left, the Pacific surrounding the Channel Islands; to the right, the rolling dry hills surrounding Lake Cachuma.

As we approached Broadcast Peak, we were surprised to hear “on your left” and be passed by a mountain biker, taking a video on his phone as he passed. I was a bit jealous of his ease, while he thought our unlikely setup was “sick.” The road winds just south of both Broadcast and Santa Ynez Peaks, both of which would have earned me Peakbagger Points via short roads to their summits, but time was short, and I was too beaten down to even consider tagging them.

Past Santa Ynez Peak

At the pavement it was Leonie’s turn to crouch and kiss the ground. Then we put on all our clothes to race the sun down the 4000-foot descent to the sea. Steve had recommended the Refugio biker-hiker campground on the beach, about an hour away, as the best one in the state, and we made our best effort at speed down Refugio Road. This could be scary at times, as the pavement was sometimes rough, the road narrow, and the joy-riding drivers and motorcyclists headed up to watch the sun set took the blind corners at speed. Even with our lightest load of the tour, carrying little food or water, I wore down the brake pads considerably, and was worried about my ability to control our speed. (I briefly looked into adding braze-ons and replacing the calipers with discs, but this does not seem like a clear win.)

My hands were aching and cold, and Leonie was practically falling asleep on the back, when we found a pullout about 1200 feet above the ocean with a sheltered and flat-ish spot to camp, and no angry signs. We were low on food and water, but both tired enough to prefer it to riding another half hour to the beach. I was happy to just suck it up and figure things out in the morning, but Leonie decided to flag down a car and ask for water, something I would hesitate to do in the States even in non-COVID times. This time we lucked out: the first car was driven by a young woman named Angelina who was carrying not just bottled water, but mandarin oranges and (for me) chicken salad. We watched the light fade over Santa Cruz Island as we ate our last dinner, then crawled into the tent for our first windless sleep of the tour.