Trip Report: I went fastpacking up Santa Barbara Canyon on a 2-day 43-mile loop through the fabled Puerto Suelo trail with ultra-runner Howard Cohen. Here's what went down.
Sometimes you just don't know what you are getting yourself into, and sometimes that works in your favor. When I used to snowboard up in Lake Tahoe, we had this rule, that if you lingered too long at the edge of a cliff, you would get the willys and not launch. Ten seconds to scope out a landing and no more, then you just go. That's how we did it.
When Santa Barbara Trail Racing director Nancy Kaplan hit me up on Facebook about an ultra-runner named Howard Cohen I needed to do a trip with, I found myself standing on the cliff's edge and the 10 second window began ticking down. Then I saw the route and learned about the condition of the trail or lack thereof and what would basically be a double marathon in 2-days; not in mileage exactly, but in effort and duration. 5 seconds left. Despite the fact that I'd only logged 10 miles of trail time in the last month and had been as sedentary as I'd ever been, before the "rational" mind could kick in and eat up the 10 second clock, I decided to go for it — and launched.
It's Saturday, December 9 at about 4:30pm, the second and final day of our trip. We are about 3 hours behind schedule. I find myself in a canyon [11S 263610 3841372] and with the shorter winter days it's nigh dark. The place is called Puerto Suelo, a hellish connector, that was once a trail, but today is a wall of thorned ceanothus. I mean wall to wall, "you can't see your feet below you" thick.
Survey markers, a.k.a., "flags" are essential for navigating overgrown trails. Here, Jhaura drops down the rabbit hole.
Every step forward means countless one-two inch spikes will reconnect with the bloody poke holes in my shins, thighs and forearms that the previous step proded. Like the crown on Jesus, but over my entire body, hour after hour. Sometimes, it goes to a whole other level — with the wild rose thorns, whose ends curve into a barbed hook that rips and tears instead of merely pricking like a pin. Good thing I didn't wait for that 10-second clock to tick down before I lept, right?!
I'm in pain, at one point, I just stop. Howard is up ahead with pants on, making better progress. I know I have to move forward — ain't no way I'm pushing the button for an evac or trying to bed down on a 1x1 patch of bare ground. No choice but to move forward. People are starting to worry back home.
I've always wanted to be a CIA agent, so I pretend I'm being interrogated and have to resist the pain. One more step. It's getting dark quick and cold, the night before was in the low 20s. My light is decent, but no match for this thicket. Your beam just reflects off the dense brush and it looks even less penetrable. So I move faster, as a tear wells up in the corner of my eye. I'm not doing that thing that guys don't do, no, it's just from the cold air. Why oh why, what the @! was I thinking, I hate bushwhacking.
My lower legs the day after. They don't look too bad after a good rinsing.
The night before, when we reached Pens Camp [11S 258308 3836357] Howard and I sat next to the fire and enjoyed a great meal together. He fired up an nice little alcohol stove setup with a Mountain House delicacy and I burned down an Esbit tab on my Ti Solid Fuel Cook System to heat water for a tasty black beans and rice soup with butter, olive oil and of course copious amounts of hot sauce care of Del Taco and Taco Bell. Yum! By 8pm we were bedded down and enjoying a long nights sleep. Howard used a Six Moons Designs Lunar Solo and I hung my Gatewood Cape (also by SMD) from a tree limb as I usually do in our woody forest.
Looking back from the comfort of my office couch, it was a good trip with good company. Type 2 fun, no doubt, but something very few have done. We were deep in the heart of the forest and we could tell. Navigating off trail, really traversing the land, sometimes right up and over a mountain to get into another drainage. (Not stuff you would usually consider in the dense thicket known as the Los Padres Forest). You could feel the remoteness, the lack of recent visitors. Footprints? I don't recall any. As a matter of fact in 43 miles and 2-days we did not see a single soul, except for the shadows of bear, cat and deer. At night the sky was as black as ink and the stars as bright as LEDs — it makes you yearn for more.
I learned some great tips from Howard about high endurance nutrition, especially in regards to snacks. Some of my fuel was a bit hard to eat when I was ready to puke from exhaustion. Running that last 10 miles to the car in the pitch black thorn demon's lair — my stomach was doing flips and my veggie jerky or gorp was not on the menu. Howard had these great snacks that ultra-runners use called Honey Stinger Waffles that are organic and offer a very palatable fuel when at your limit. I've experimented with high endurance fuels in the past, and this trip solidified my interest in their use, especially on trips where you don't stop for lunch.
It was gritty, it was painful and it was a good trip. You in for the next one?
The Dick Smith Wilderness is a rugged and painted lady with much to offer. I remember back in high school my buddy and I would mountain bike up Indian Creek via Mono Debris Dam to fish the wild trout. Over the years I've visited this area of the Los Padres and each time the experience is unique and rewarding. If you live for adventure like I do, perhaps you'll enjoy a Type 2 Fun trip with us someday?
So let's wrap it up with a quick summary of our route:
Photo Album: TR: SB Canyon Puerto Suelo FastPack Loop.
Map: Bryan Conant's Dick Smith Wilderness.
Guide Book: Craig Carey's Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura.
Day 1 [GPS Track]: Santa Barbara Canyon → Heart Break Hill → Madulce Guard Station → Bluff Camp via Buckhorn Rd → Pens Camp via Indian Creek. Distance: 26.46 mi. Time: 9:25:17. Avg Pace: 21:26 min/mi. Elevation Gain: 5,299 ft.
Day 2 [GPS Track]: Pens Camp → Loma Pelona → Alamar Hill Trail → Alamar Tin Shack → Rollins Camp → Dutch Oven → Puerto Suelo (yikes!) → Madulce Guard Station → Santa Barbara Canyon → Willow Camp (car). Distance: 20.07 mi. Time: 13:05:02. Avg Pace: 40:00 min/mi. Elevation Gain: 4,255 ft.