“The Drain” is an aesthetic and spectacular route that ascends from the depths of the Ventana Creek Cirque to the summit of Ventana Double Cone in the most rugged coastal terrain of the lower 48. The route provides an authentic sense of adventure in a truly wild canyon that is rugged and unspoiled. The feature was named “The Drain” since it funnels all of the water in the wild cirque that stretches from Ventana Double Cone to Kandlbinder which drains into Ventana Creek. From within this chiseled canyon one can gaze up at the ridge that separates the Little Sur River drainage from the Big Sur River drainage, a formidable rampart with massive cliffs and buttresses along its entire length. Along the route one passes arguably the most scenic grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs in existence. The firs stand proud in quintessential columnar fashion and have seen few, if any, humans beneath their shadows. A picturesque waterfall part of the way up the Drain blocks easy progress, but scrambling options keep the climbing non-technical. Full photo album here (260 photos).
Note: Advanced navigation skills and comfort on very steep, rugged terrain with sustained scrambling are essential for any explorations into Ventana Creek Cirque. Prior experience with off-trail travel in the Ventana Wilderness is extremely helpful before attempting this route since the Ventana backcountry posses its own unique set of challenges.
Perhaps the most arduous part of reaching the Drain is the approach. The traditional routes are the Jackson Creek approach or a long creek walk up Ventana Creek, but the uncovered route from Cabezo Prieto to Kandlbinder due to the Soberanes Fire has proven to be the most efficient route for the time being (until the brush grows back). For a description of that approach route see this post. From Kandlbinder it’s over 2,000 feet down to the base of the Drain over steep and rugged terrain. The upper part of the descent into the Drain can be accomplished through multiple routes, but the main idea is to reach a sub-ridge at ~3,700 ft and drop into a key gully that offers a non-dicey descent route. While the terrain is steep the ground is generally stable. The main section of the gully has a nice section of plunge stepping underneath oaks and Santa Lucia Firs. At one point the gully reaches a constriction that may require easy downclimbing. The balance of the route down to Ventana Creek and the start of the Drain is a straightforward trip down a dry streambed with rock hopping.
This dry stream bed emerges from the forest at the junction with Ventana Creek (~2,850 ft). Depending on timing, the water may be flowing underneath large talus blocks or there might be some surface water, but just around the corner from this point the water is exposed over solid rock and can be considered perennial. Here the canyon walls close in on the watercourse and this part is almost always shady. The surface water may disappear under the rocks once again only to reappear before a series of cascades and a small waterfall which the author named “Little Ventana Falls”. The taller and more impressive “Ventana Falls” is downstream of the junction with the route from Kandlbinder. However, 50 ft tall Little Ventana Falls is situated in a particularly pretty section of the Drain with Santa Lucia Firs and smooth cliff faces. The scrambling is easy before this waterfall, but surmounting the falls involves a couple class 4 moves, made more difficult by the presence of large yucca plants growing in unfortunate locations. Other scramble routes exist for the astute adventurer.
Shortly after the waterfall sequence the Drain transitions from solid rock to large talus boulders. Usually the water disappears for good but after winter rains they may be occasional surface water. At around 4,200 feet, the gully appears to reach a headwall where there is another small waterfall after winter rains (“Mini Ventana Falls”), but turn climbers right and ascend either a loose rock rib or trend farther right to climb steep terrain in a Santa Lucia Fir forest to reach more solid talus blocks and eventually a spectacular grove of old growth forest of Santa Lucia Firs beneath the upper buttress of Ventana Double Cone. This section of talus is littered with rusting parts of the lookout structure that once existed atop Ventana Double Cone. It seems as if the at least part of the structure was simply thrown off the summit cliffs. At ~4,400 feet, the final chute appears providing non-technical access to the summit ridge topping out only a few feet from the summit. This final chute has some loose sections of class 3 scrambling so care must be taken, especially if travelling with multiple climbers. Enjoy the view from the summit of Ventana Double Cone, especially looking down the Drain from which you had just climbed! Full photo album here (260 photos).