Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hiking in a Winter Wonderland

Once again, a three-day weekend managed to sneak up on me unawares. The Tuesday before President's day I frantically began casting about, trying to find a new backpacking destination that would transform a surplus holiday into an adventure. I'd previously thought of going to Point Reyes, both because it sounds cool and as potential training for a theoretical trip along the Lost Coast. However, I was much too late, as the sites in Point Reyes had already filled up.

Henry Coe is always a wonderful option, but now that I've moved farther north, I wanted to take advantage of places farther away from San Jose. I noodled around a bit on some Peninsula park sites; they had some intriguing-looking camping opportunities, particularly in Pescadero Creek, but nothing that looked like it would give me enough trail mileage for a satisfying outing.

After some more browsing, I settled on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. People generally hike this as a 28-mile one-way trip. It can be hiked in either direction; the terminals are at Mission Peak east of Fremont, and Lake Del Valle, south of Livermore. I've spent a LOT of time on Mission Peak; I've probably climbed it twenty times by now, and I still love doing it. I wasn't really equipped to through-hike the trail, so I worked out an out-and-back that would let me maximize my time in the hitherto-unexplored middle section.

The East Bay Regional Park District has a good web site with good information, so a bit of research let me piece together the logistics. I settled on a camp site called Maggie's Half Acre, which is almost exactly midway between the Sunol park entrance and the Del Valle entrance. I decided that I'd spend both nights there. This is a system that has worked great for me in Coe: I do my heavy backpacking on the first day in, then do wider-ranging hikes on the middle day with my day pack, and then finish off with a mostly-downhill backpack out. (In theory, at least. In practice, Poverty Flat Road ensures lots of climbing in Coe trips originating from headquarters.) Looking at the mileage, it appeared that I'd have plenty of extra time for side trips and ranging around. I typically make about 2 miles per hour when backpacking through rugged terrain, so I expected to have ample time after making the 10-mile trek to camp.

It's interesting how every park system seems to handle reservations differently. Yosemite has a great online site that lets you see which trailheads have openings; but, you need to fax in your permit request. Henry Coe sites in the Western Zone are all first-come first-served, so if you really want, say, a particular Los Cruceros site, you should plan on getting to headquarters early in the morning. For EBPD, you can make reservations by calling in. It's a pretty good system; they do standard business hours, but someone picked up after the first ring, and knew exactly what they were doing. I requested Maggie's Half Acre; she recognized it as a backpacking site, and offered me Camp 3. I thought that sounded just fine, having never been there before. She took my payment via credit card over the phone. Their fees are extremely reasonable: $5 per person per night, plus a flat $8 reservation fee for the total trip. Three days in paradise would set me back less than twenty bucks. And, as an extra bonus, overnight parking for your car is included in the backpacking fee! Since day-use parking is $5, I was getting free parking with the backpacking trip... or a free backpacking trip for the cost of parking, however you want to see it.

I'd called on Wednesday, and was pleasantly surprised to get the order confirmation on Friday. I was a little nonplussed to see that the last page had a line for my signature and a fax number to return it; I don't have access to a fax machine, so I just brought the whole envelope with me.

By now, I have backpacking down to a science, even on such short notice. I have a little Google Docs spreadsheet that acts as a checklist; each row is an item that I need to bring, and each column is a trip I've taken. I fill out each cell as I pack: "X" means I'm taking it, "Pass" means that I'm deliberately omitting it. (When I first started these trips, I'd listed a few things that I never ended up using, like a paperback book and a notebook. Eventually I'll get around to just removing those rows.) I was really happy to realize that my gear expenditure for Yosemite is continuing to pay off. My backpack has always felt really full before, but on this trip it seemed downright light. I'd traded in my old sleeping bag from the Coe trips with an awesome Marmot light bag for Yosemite; so, instead of my sleeping bag occupying the bottom half of my pack, it just scrunched down into the very bottom. And, unlike the Yosemite trip, I didn't have to bring along a bear can and six days' worth of food. I could even cheap out and revert to TJ's Indian Fare instead of pricey freeze-dried dinners. Yay!

I kept my alarm set for my standard 6:30AM wakeup, and was on the road a little after 7. I got to the park a little before 8:30. I told the guy at the entrance booth that I would be backpacking until Monday. "What's your name?" he asked me. "Chris King," I replied. "Ah, yes, I've got you here," he said, and pulled out some paperwork. He filled out my camp site ticket, asked me if I needed a wilderness permit (I did), asked me if it was my first time there (I said "yes", although I think I've probably done a day trip in Sunol at some point), asked if I'd seen the snow on the way up (I had!), and cheerfully sent me on my way.

Two tangents:

The wilderness permit is an interesting and mostly-cool thing. As is the case with many regional parks that were established after areas were developed (see also Castle Rock and Skyline-to-the-Sea), the Ohlone Wilderness Trail crosses some sections that aren't in park land. Fortunately, the foreign lands are owned by the San Francisco Water District, which is way cooler in the Diablo Range than they are around San Andreas Reservoir. (Yeah, I said it. Open up the land, please!) They allow hikers to travel through, so long as you stick to the trail. The wilderness permit provides the nominal permission to go through there, thus keeping SFWD's territorial integrity intact. And the permit itself? Well, it's a really nice big map of the trail, along with the date the "permit" was issued, and a lot of text that covers regulations, descriptions of the trails, wildlife, etc.

Second tangent: snow! My friends and family from the rest of the country probably don't think this is a big deal, but for those of us in the Bay Area, snow is a rare and news-worthy occurrence. I've spent several years here when there hasn't been any snow. Even in the coldest winters, there's never any snow in the valley itself; at most, the tops of some nearby mountains (typically Hamilton and Diablo) will get some.

This was all just fortunate circumstance on my part, of course. I'd been checking the weather earlier in the week when deciding whether to make the trip or not. The forecast had called for some rain on Saturday, a sunny Sunday, and possibly more rain on Monday. Nobody said anything about snow. This was already becoming an adventure!

I'll be posting pictures that cover the details of the hike itself. In broad strokes: the first day started out nice and sunny, then turned to rain. I had a poncho ready and was well equipped. On that first day, I only saw a total of two hikers; however, I met something like 6-8 runners! These psychotic people RAN the 10 miles up to the top of Rose Peak, elevation 3817 feet, the last bit of it through the snow, then turned around and ran back. Unreal. And they all seemed cheerful, too! I don't think I'll ever understand runners.

Once I got high enough, my rain turned to snow. It was a really cool approach, with the enticement of white peaks eventually leading to patchy snow, and finally a nice thick coat. I wasn't making as great of time as I'd hoped, but was stopping to take lots of pictures. I stopped a bit before 1 to eat my lunch, peanut butter spread on a piece of naan. (Hey, I'm mixing it up!)

I trudged through the last few miles. Earlier on I'd toyed with a few ideas for stretching out the day, like a side loop to see the bluffs; I'd also considered hitting Rose Peak proper either before or after setting up camp. I was starting to fade, though. While most of my body was staying nicely warm, my hands had been chilly for a few hours; my hiking shoes were starting to pack in snow, and I knew that wouldn't end well. So, I made a dash for Maggie's Half Acre, and set to work.

I've gotten quite good at pitching my tent, but this time I had extra prep work to do, like clearing out the six inches of snow covering my site. By the time I had everything set up and my gear stashed inside, it was four o'clock, and I was freezing. The activity had kept me warm on my strenuous hike up, but I'd been much less ambulatory while preparing camp, which was letting the elements settle in. So, I took off my boots, took off my hat, dove into the tent, burrowed into my sleeping bag, cinched it up, and started willing myself to warmth and to sleep.

And, it worked! I woke up around six, as it was starting to get dark. I briefly thought of making dinner. "Nah," I thought, "This is pretty nice," and went back to sleep. All told, I slept for fourteen hours, until dawn got me up the next day.

By Sunday morning, the snow had ceased, and a pleasant sun was cheerily marching over the horizon. I quickly realized that the climate would still pose obstacles, though. Those shoes that I'd left outside? Frozen solid. As in, cased in ice. My hat? Ditto. Ew. With a lot of hard work, I eventually managed to cram my shoes onto my feet, and then set about making a quick but highly appreciated breakfast: TJ's instant oatmeal with cinnamon and apples, with a mix-in of TJ's ABC trail mix (almonds, dried blueberries, cranberries, and golden raisins). I knew that swift action would be my salvation, so I hoisted my day pack and struck out.

Back in the planning stages, I'd toyed with the idea of spending Sunday going to Del Valle and then back to Rose Peak. While challenging, this is doable; it's about 20 miles of terrain, which I can cover when I'm carrying a light pack. However, since I was striking out across unbroken snow, I knew that I wouldn't be able to make that kind of time. Instead, I opted for another outing, to Murietta Falls, the highest waterfall in the Bay Area. With the precipitation of the last few days, I was hoping for something impressive.

After a few miles of hiking, my poor toes began to warm up, and eventually I got back to feeling okay. The stretch between Rose Peak and Murietta Falls was totally deserted. In many areas I was the only visible traveler; in others, some other tracks left evidence of earlier visitors.

Murietta Falls unexpectedly proved to be snow-free. It was sunny and calm, so I perched on a rock near the waterfall and munched my lunch while I watched the falls. It's a pleasant site, though not spectacular... more a series of little waterfalls than a single enormous spout. Still, the realization that I was watching the start of a water system from waaaaay up in the hills was cool.

I had a bit more time, so I elected to continue walking towards Del Valle until 1pm, then turn around and return to camp. Oddly enough, I ran into quite a few people coming up to the falls, but after I turned around, I didn't pass any of them again. Maybe people enjoy spending hours by the falls?

The sun ducked away on my return trip, and my toes started getting cold again. I had fun retracing my steps, literally following my own footsteps. Once I made it back to camp, I felt like a little timer started running in my head: "It has been X minutes since you stopped heavy exercising and your toes started freezing." I raced to boil water (hooray for MSR!), cook my Indian Fare (Madras Lentil), steep my tea, eat my warm and spicy and utterly delicious meal with a large and soft and completely delicious piece of naan, drink the tea, clean up, then bound back into the tent and zip myself back in.

Now, I'd had a few cold nights in Yosemite, and was grateful for the marmot then, but this trip is the first time that I've used the bag to its ultimate warming potential. It's a mummy sack, with a collapsible face opening: from inside the bag, you can pull on a drawstring near your head, which shrinks down the fabric around your face. You end up with an opening for your eyes and mouth, with everything else covered in warm, goose-downy comfort. When I read the description, it had sounded a little creepy, but now, it was the most comfortable thing in the world.

I only slept about twelve hours that night. In the morning, I did everything that I could to get ready before leaving my tent. While my legs were still in my sleeping bag, I opened the tent door and cooked breakfast outside. (Using a gas stove inside a tent is a big no-no.) I rolled up my sleeping pad, organized all of my gear, and consolidated my food. Finally, I was ready to put on my pants (shiver) and force my feet back into my shoes (double shiver).

The shoes were even worse this day. There was visible ice all around them. The laces splayed out perpendicularly, freakishly held aloft by the frosted dew. I grimly worked the material back and forth, back and forth, watching as the ice chipped away. I eventually got my feet in after undoing the first two rows of laces. Of course, this started the timer again: "You have spent X minutes in these shoes without engaging in strenuous physical activity." Fortunately, I'm faster at taking down a tent than putting it up. I was also pleased to note that for once the snow was helping me work faster: usually, I'm a bit paranoid about where I stash my gear when I'm striking camp. The logical place to put it is in my pack, but I need to put the tent and tarp in there before the rest of the gear, so I have a hard time finding a spot to temporarily store all the stuff that used to be in my tent until my tent is in my pack. However! When you have pristine snow all around you, which has frosted over during the night to an icy sheen? You can just toss your gear wherever. It'll be clean, it won't even get wet.

Finally, I was done repacking. After a brief stop at the World's Grossest Toilet, I began my descent.

Monday started out cloudy, but around the time I descended below the snow line, the sun came out. I was glad that I could more fully appreciate the really gorgeous terrain there (again, pictures coming soon). The rolling hills are remarkably beautiful, and the rocky outcroppings add interest to the terrain.

Weirdly enough, on Monday I didn't pass any other runners, but did meet many other hikers. It looked like some people had spent the night at the Sunol Backpacking Camp; I still think that this site is too close to the Sunol entrance, but I have to admit that some of those sites look amazing. Closer in to the park headquarters, I ran into many more of the park's itinerant visitors: young families, dogs, shutterbugs.

I did end up slightly switching up my return to make a little more of a loop: instead of returning along the McClatchy Loop Trail as I had on my way out, I swung south to a road that ran along the boundary of the park. This included a swing by an area named Little Yosemite, which really is quite pretty.

Finally, I made it back to my car, intact and happy. It didn't even bear any evidence of the water of the last few days. Oh, and it was warm when I got inside! So very warm! Smiling contentedly, I pointed my car westward and headed home.

UPDATE 2/27/2011: Pictures now available. Far too many of them. Please accept my most profound apologies.

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