Cone Peak Climbs

Another phenomenal day on the mountain I call the King of Big Sur! Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. My first visit to this grand mountain was in 2010 via the “standard” all-trail route from Kirk Creek to Vicente Flat and the Cone Peak Trail. I repeated this route in 2011.  It was only in 2013 when I did the Stone Ridge Direct route that the possibilities for off-trail exploration on Cone Peak really clicked for me. Since then I’ve visited Cone Peak frequently exploring the various trails and routes on this amazing mountain. GPS route here.

On this day, I joined Joey Cassidy for the next step of my personal discovery of Cone Peak by tackling a series of rock scramble routes. In the process we ascended all three of Cone Peak’s prominent ridges: the Southeast Ridge, the North Ridge and the ridge linking Cone Peak to Twin Peak. We also included an ascent of the short but sweet West Rib, arguably the finish of the Cone-Twin Ridge, which makes up for its short length with relatively solid rock (for the Santa Lucia Mountains) and an outrageous setting of stunning views in the background.  A special thanks goes to Joey Cassidy for showing me the northeast face and the west rib, routes he had previously scoped out and climbed. It’s always a pleasure to join Joey on adventures, especially since he’s an extremely talented photographer. His photos of me on these scrambles were so awesome I’ve included a few in this post so double thanks goes to Joey for contributing (credit indicated below or above his photos).  We started with an ascent of Stone Ridge Direct, as beautiful as ever, rising from the redwood-filled canyons of Limkiln to the exposed grassy slopes and finally the Ventana alpine zone with Santa Lucia Firs, Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines. Once we crossed over to Cone Peak via the Twin-Cone Ridge we took the Cone Peak trail down to a point where we could access the Southeast Ridge, a prominent ridge separating the Limekiln drainage from the San Antonio River drainage.Southeast Ridge: The Southeast Ridge is extremely scenic with amazing views of Stone Ridge and also the rugged cirque on the northeast side of Cone Peak giving a nice angle on the face that we would climb later that day. The Southeast Ridge included some sections of class 3 scrambles. The more difficult sections could by bypassed by dropping off the north side of the ridge and traversing underneath, but we chose to stick to the crest of the ridge and enjoy as much rock scrambling as we could. The most difficult part of the Southeast ridge is a loose downclimb from the prominent knob along the ridge into a deep notch. Once in the notch the route is finished with a straightforward scramble up to the Cone Peak Trail.

 

West Rib: The west rib of Cone Peak (pictured above) is a short pitch of remarkably solid rock for the Santa Lucia Mountains. Most rock in the Santa Lucias is very crumbly so when a pitch is fairly solid it’s automatically a gem! However, what makes the West Rib so sweet is its amazing position above Twin Peak, Stone Ridge and the South Fork Devils Canyon. A stunning panorama surrounds you as you ascend the rib to the summit. Instead of traversing around the mountain and taking the switchbacks to the top, simply scramble up the boulder field to the base of the rib. There are easier and looser routes to the summit from this point, but the prominent west rib is the line to climb with its relatively solid rock and mixture of enjoyable 3rd/4th class moves. Credit goes to Joey Cassidy for introducing me to this sweet little finish to summit Cone and it’s going to be hard for me to resist climbing the west rib every time in the future versus taking the trail. Northeast Face: The Northeast Face is the most dramatic, committing and steepest scramble offered by Cone Peak’s topography. The route starts from a talus field along the North Coast Ridge Trail where you look up into a cliffy cirque with the lofty summit of Cone Peak perched 1,200 ft above. After ascending loose talus, the route enters a gully filled with Santa Lucia Firs. Depending on where you enter the gully dictates how much of the gully you ascend but you ultimately look to exit the gully onto rock on climbers right where you officially start the climb up the northeast face. The rock becomes more vertical and the scrambling begins in earnest. It should be noted that staying in the gully will take you away from the Northeast Face and toward the deep notch on the Southeast Ridge – not the route I am describing. Once you’ve exited the gully and are on the Northeast Face there are numerous possibilities and micro-route finding challenges to ascend the class 3 face interspersed with class 4 climbing. Some lines will be more difficult than others, but the inhibiting factor in tackling the more vertical, exposed rock on the face is the inherent poor quality of the rock. This results in sometimes using vegetation as holds or foot steps. That being said, the rock is solid enough where you need it to be on the 4th class sections that it’s a very fun scramble.The crux moves are near the top where the holds become thin for a few moves but after surmounting this final cliff you emerge onto easier terrain near the top of the north ridge.  As with the other scramble routes described, the setting is amazing with a view of the 5th class cliffs along the north ridge, and a vista above a pristine grove of old growth Santa Lucia Firs leading down to the San Antonio River drainage.    Photo by Joey CassidyPhotos above and below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the NE Face.North Ridge: We descended the North Ridge to reach the North Coast Ridge Trail which we took to the base of the Northeast Face route. The lower part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The upper part of the north ridge is more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where it’s most efficient to come off the ridge slightly to the west side to avoid loose rock formations and gendarmes on the ridge crest proper. This upper part of the north ridge has phenomenal views with lots of steep relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet, including the cliffs of the northeast face route described above. Old growth Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines are at home in this environment clinging to the cliffy slopes and thereby avoiding the periodic wildfires that sweep through these mountains. The scenery makes for some very enjoyable scambling on the north ridge, a classic route of Big Sur.  In the photo below Joey enjoys the amazing views from the Southeast Ridge to Stone Ridge, the Middle Fork Limekiln Creek and Hare Canyon. Photo below by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the West RibPhoto by Joey CassidyAfter the scramble routes we cruised down the Cone Peak Trail to Trail Spring and then ran the Gamboa Trail underneath the forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines in the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon to Ojito Saddle, where we took the Stone Ridge Trail back to the lower part of Stone Ridge and down to Limekiln Canyon. The more time I spend exploring Cone Peak, the more I love the mountain! Photo by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below  by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the SE Ridge. Photo by Joey CassidyPhoto above and below by Joey Cassidy of the SE RidgePhoto by Joey CassidyPhoto above by Joey Cassidy of me ascending the short but sweet West Rib. 

 

Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone

While it’s now June and most likely the days of comfortable travel in the interior Ventana Wilderness have passed until fall (most summer days are oppressively hot with copious flies), this post recaps an awesome point-to-point adventure with David Frank back in early May from Pfieffer Big Sur to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone. From 6 miles of wading through a lush canyon to classic Ventana bushwhaking to precarious scrambling, this was quite the adventure!  The route started at Big Sur Station. After some trail miles on the Pine Ridge Trail we descended to Ventana Camp. Shortly thereafter, an amazing creek walk began in Ventana Creek up narrow gorges with small waterfalls and rapids in a setting of lush redwoods, ferns and moss. The creek wading is not optional; the walls of the canyon come right down to the water course and this is not an advisable place to be in higher volume creek flow.  It was fairly slow going wading in the creek with innumerable step overs, log jams, pools, waterfalls and other obstacles to climb through, up and under, but I enjoyed every minute in this mystical and captivating canyon. Walking up Ventana Creek the sense of remoteness is strong as few have traveled up this unspoiled waterway.  At one point the forest canopy parted and we caught a glimpse of Ventana Double Cone, the Queen of the Ventana, presiding over a rugged region that is unmatched in the coastal mountain ranges of the west coast of the United States. After several miles of walking and wading in Ventana Creek, we turned off onto the East Fork of Ventana Creek where dense vegetation closed in creating a claustrophobic situation at times. After 6 miles of total creek wading, the creek bed dried out and travel became easier over talus, but not without copious poison oak and the usual chaparral vegetation of the interior Ventana. After some time in the dry creekbed, we ascended steep slopes into the extremely remote south cirque of Ventana Double Cone and then scrambled rock to the south arete. This area is wild with a sheer ruggedness that is more customary of the Sierra Nevada.

Everything was going well for this part of the scramble, but things quickly turned serious as the rock became steeper and dangerously loose as we approached the south arete. The final part to gain the south arete and then traversing the first part along the spine of the ridge involved some very loose rock; not just small rocks but entire blocks were deeply fractured and ready to tumble upon a touch. We quickly discovered that the south face of Ventana Double Cone is incredibly crumbly and no step or hold can be taken for granted. We took pause of the potentially dangerous situation that lay ahead where we would have to commit to climbing extremely loose rock on steep terrain with considerable exposure over cliffs. Ultimately, we decided to forgo these risks, a decision that was aided by the fact that a fortuitous talus gully allowed us to drop off the arete and traverse over to the easy east ridge without much delay. The improvised alternative route was brushy, but we did not have to backtrack on the route and we gained the summit of Ventana Double Cone safely, therefore enabling us to continue our point to point to Bottcher’s Gap. The summit views were marvelous as usual and it was a treat to explore the wild upper reaches of the East Fork Ventana Creek.  An added surprise was the marvelous wildflower meadows on the way to Bottcher’s Gap near Big Pines and Devils Peak. There were literally millions of lupine and poppy carpeting the hillsides; a spectacular patchwork of color! We arrived at Bottcher’s Gap just under 12 hours after starting; another amazing adventure in the Ventana! Looking back at this adventure, the most endearing part was the creek walk up the mystical and wild canyon of Ventana Creek. I look forward to returning there for a point to point to Bottchers Gap, except via the Drain, which I feel is the premier route up Ventana Double Cone for both scenery and aesthetics. The following photographs are in chronological order as the day adventure unfolded. GPS route here.

Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via “The Drain”

Intro:  Building on our La Ventana Loop adventure, Joey Cassidy and I descended into the extremely rugged headwaters of Ventana Creek to climb Ventana Double Cone via “The Drain,” a prominent rocky gully that funnels all of the water in the wild cirque that stretches from Ventana Double Cone to Kandlbinder. From within this chiseled canyon, we gazed 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. We walked among old growth Santa Lucia Firs that 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 this obstacle is surmounted with a couple class 4 moves. Additional scrambling in the Drain and the final chute was mostly solid and enjoyable. 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.

To set the stage for this climb, we ascended Jackson Creek, with its lovely waterfalls and old growth redwoods, and then climbed Kandlbinder via its direct north face talus gully. With prior experience traveling up Jackson Creek, we were able to reach the summit of Kandlbinder 3h59m after leaving the Bottchers Gap Trailhead. On the way back from Ventana Double Cone to Bottchers Gap we were treated to a spectacular display of wildflowers in the meadows near Pat Springs and Devils Peak. The Ventana Double Cone Trail is heavily overgrown south of Puerto Suello, but recent trail work to Puerto Suello (we met some of the trail crew) has greatly improved the condition of the trail from Pat Springs to Puerto Suello – thank you! With much photography along the way, we were still able to complete the loop in 10h49m confirming my suspicion that this route would be a more efficient way to connect Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone without any of the hideous brush present on the ridge crest.  This is easily one of the most aesthetic, spectacular routes I have done anywhere.  The Ventana Creek cirque provides a real sense of adventure in a truly wild canyon that is rugged and unspoiled. GPS route here.

Concept:  Back in January we completed the La Ventana Loop, becoming the first individuals to tag Kandlbinder, La Venana (aka the Window), and Ventana Double Cone all in the same day. On that 13 hour outing, our route stuck to the ridge crest (or near it) resulting in some atrocious Ventana bushwhacking, particularly between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. There had to be another way.  The talus gully route up Kandlbinder was brush-free and beautiful so I knew that I wanted to return for that excellent climb. From the summit of VDC and Kandlbinder, I also had my eye on the prominent drainage of Ventana Creek wrapping around the west ridge of Ventana Double Cone.  This drainage seemed to provide a non-technical and brush-free route up VDC but questions remained regarding the descent into this drainage from Kandlbinder. These questions were answered when Toshi Hosaka an Sachin Sawant successfully descended into the Ventana Creek cirque from Kandlbinder on the way to their awesome scramble route (likely a first ascent) up the west ridge of VDC.  With further satellite inspection, I identified a gully that would provide an excellent descent route from Kandlbinder directly to Ventana Creek that avoids both brush and sketchy loose rock, and efficiently deposit us into Ventana cirque. We would then ascend the upper reaches of Ventana Creek all the way to VDC via the prominent gully I call “the Drain” since a complex network of chutes and gullies from La Ventana all the way to VDC funnel into the main gully. See below for a detailed route description. GPS route here.

Route Description: The Drain route is identical to the La Ventana Loop with the exception of the portion between Kandlbinder and VDC, so that is the section I will focus on in the following route description: From the summit of Kandlbinder, descend the east ridge a short distance until you are below white cliffs that compose the southern aspect of the summit block. From here descend straight down on loose talus or rock ribs aiming for a large patch of red talus below. Before reaching the red talus field, begin traversing left, utilizing user friendly dirt patches for quick plunge steps. At ~4,000 ft, traverse over to a sub-ridge where the terrain drops off steeply to the east. Descend this sub-ridge to ~3,700 ft and drop into a gully. 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 downclimbing. We trended skiers right a short distance and then traversed back into the gully below the constriction. The balance of the route down to Ventana Creek and the start of the Drain is a straightforward trip down a dry streambed. At the junction with Ventana Creek (~2,850 ft), the water flows underneath large talus blocks, but just around the corner from this point the water is exposed over solid rock. This section of accessible water is fairly short before the stream disappears under the rocks once again, only to reappear before a series of cascades and a small waterfall. The scrambling is easy before this waterfall, but surmounting the falls involves a couple class 4 moves. Shortly after this waterfall, the water disappears for good leaving a dry streambed of fairly stable talus.  At around 4,200 feet, the gully appears to reach a headwall, but turn climbers right and cross a loose rock rib to reach more solid talus blocks underneath an old growth forest of Santa Lucia Firs.  This section of talus is littered with rusting parts of the 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 a few feet from the summit. This final chute has some loose sections of class 3 scrambling so care must be taken. From VDC, the remainder of the route is all on trails back to Bottchers Gap. If done correctly, the Drain route avoids much of the infamous Ventana brush, and in fact, the worst brush is on the Ventana Double Cone Trail in the miles south of Puerto Suello Pass. Despite being a “trail” this stretch of brush is not trivial. GPS route here

Gear: The La Sportiva Bushido handled the scrambling, creek walking and trail miles masterfully. In particular the sticky rubber provided confidence on the rocks. The Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest provided more than enough capacity and was comfortable all day (Joey used the SJ Ultra Vest). These lightweight vests are essential pieces of equipment for these long adventures, but note that sharp Ventana brush can wreak havoc on the light material so be careful!   

Desolation Seven Summits

The Desolation Seven Summits loop offers the best showcase of the Desolation Wilderness I can think of and arguably contains the most rugged and impressive mountain scenery of any route in the Sierra Nevada north of Sonora Pass. The aesthetic loop climbs seven of the high points in the Desolation circumnavigating Lake Aloha and also providing grand vistas of Lake Tahoe. The loop contains a nice mixture of big climbs, scrambling and trail miles. Total mileage is close to 30 miles with nearly 10,800 ft of elevation gain. Considering the vast majority of the elevation gain is off-trail on often arduous terrain, this is a great workout.

The Desolation Wilderness is located west and southwest of Lake Tahoe and is known for the granite landscape created by the Crystal Range with its beautiful lakes and views. It is easily the most rugged area of the Tahoe basin.  With such beauty and relative close proximity to the Sacramento metro area and South Lake Tahoe comes over-appreciation in the form of crowds and trail quotas. However, this route explores sections of the wilderness that still feel wild, largely owing to the fact that the heart of the route between Pyramid Peak and Dicks Peak is entirely off trail. You won’t see many other people on this section, if any. I personally have yet to see anybody in the Desolation off a trail.  It is this off-trail section that also provides the most spectacular views of Lake Aloha, the crown jewel of the Desolation, and the Crystal Range. Last summer when I did this loop I skipped Ralston Peak (it was the Desolation six summits; photo album with ideal photography conditions in 2012 here) but tagged it on the way out this time. I found Ralston to be a worthy addition with great views of Echo Lakes and a different perspective on the Crystal Range and Lake Aloha. Even with the addition of Ralston, I managed to go 40+ minutes faster than 2012 finishing in around 11 hours total. The faster time is attributed to (1) better navigation between Pyramid Peak and Mount Agassiz, (2) better route up Jacks Peak, and (3) taking the Tahoe Rim Trail to Gilmore Lake and Mount Tallac from Dicks Pass instead of the off-trail ridge. Without taking hundreds of photos and nursing a nagging injury, I imagine this loop would go in less than 8 hours. Strava route here